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A Granitelike Issue

It won't be long before presidential hopefuls start plunging into New Hampshire, instead of taking the occasional, tentative dip. They're likely to find Granite Staters have something else on their minds than federal income tax cuts or saving Social Security. Namely, how to finance local schools.

Like neighboring Vermont, and 17 other states, New Hampshire is in the midst of a court-ordered tussle over how to dismantle, then rebuild its system for funding education. The state constitution mandates an "adequate" education for all children. The state supreme court took one look at the gross differences in property tax revenue (and hence per-pupil spending) between New Hampshire communities and concluded "adequate" couldn't have such an elastic meaning.

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So this state, which prides itself on never having had a broad-based sales tax or an income tax, is having to consider the unthinkable: How else can it bring all schools up to some as yet undefined standard of adequacy?

Other states have faced similar "adequacy" rulings. Kentucky has striven to overhaul its statewide curriculum to meet court demands. West Virginia has applied a broad definition of "adequate" that includes recreation and art. Wyoming has defined adequacy as a certain teacher-student ratio.

The other, more common, basis for invalidating state school-finance systems has been equality. States whose charters call, in some way, for equal educational opportunity have been forced by lawsuits to confront inequities in school funding between rich and poor towns. Vermont's answer was to impose a statewide property-tax reallocation law. This has thrown the state's half-million citizens into virtual civil war, pitting "local control" against "equity." Texas experienced some of the same tension when it tried to shift around property tax revenues a few years back.

So school finance is a key, but often hidden, element in the nearly two-decade-long push to improve public education in America. As an issue, it will help shape - and be shaped by - trends like school choice, increased standardized testing, and stronger professional standards for teachers. If the funding questions aren't answered, the other ideas may lose much of their punch.

These controversies pose a fundamental question: How much inequity can, and should, the country live with in the name of maintaining local control of schools?

Politicians heading north better have that question firmly in mind.

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