School Funding

Finding a solution to education financing gaps

For many New Hampshire communities, city lines can still make a major financial difference.

In Brookline, residents of a home worth $200,000 must pay $4,140 in annual local school property taxes, the highest rate in the state. One town further, in Mason, a home worth $200,000 results in a tax bill of $2,358.

In Claremont, residents pay $19.64 in local school taxes for every $1,000 of assessed property value; just up the Connecticut River in Hanover, residents pay $9.01 for $1,000. Despite the lower land values ​​of the less favored municipalities, the inhabitants pay proportionally much more in taxes to finance their schools.

As debates rage over critical race theory, educational freedom accounts and mask policies in schools, the issue of school funding inequalities has received less attention in the past two years. .

But the problem persists despite landmark 30-year-old state Supreme Court rulings and an ongoing lawsuit in 2019 targeting funding shortfalls. And this year, like previous years, lawmakers say they have proposals for how to deal with the issue.

One idea would be to inject more aid into schools while keeping the same funding formula. Another would uproot this funding formula and find new ways to distribute aid.

Still, some proponents say both proposals are half measures. Their preference: that New Hampshire eliminate its reliance on property taxes to fund public schools.

A new vision of “adequate”

According to Representative Dave Luneau, the problem with New Hampshire’s school funding formula is that its creators looked at the wrong end of the telescope.

Currently, districts start the same way under the formula: Any district that cannot fund the minimum amount of public school tuition per student with local property taxes alone receives a minimum of $3,786.66 per student. . Then districts receive additional funding for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, who need special education, who are learning English, or who have fallen below the proficiency level on assessment. state in the third year. These additions can add thousands of dollars to a student’s annual state funding for education.

The system relies primarily on equal funding; adjustments are based primarily on a district’s student income profile. Luneau argues that it is a backward focus. Instead of orienting its public aid to education according to the economic status of each student, the state should distribute the money according to a more meaningful measure: the ability of the school to provide adequate opportunities, he said.

“Keeping the formula flat and expanding tax disparity assistance is a very expensive way to do that, because you’re already essentially handing out state dollars, which is almost a billion dollars, and you distribute it fairly evenly whether you are re Manchester or you are New Castle,” the Hopkinton Democrat said.

Luneau’s proposal would reinvent the formula. His bill, House Bill 1680, would eliminate that default sum given to all districts that receive adequate aid and replace it with a new calculation — an “opportunity budget” — based on how much each district needs in support. funding to give children an equal opportunity to achieve state assessment averages.

Under the bill, the Department of Education would assess each school district using criteria such as student assessment scores and graduation and attendance rates, as well as intrinsic factors that could make it more difficult to increase in these rates, such as population density and high staff costs.

These assessments would be incorporated into a formula to determine what the district receives from the state to create an equal opportunity for success.

The Idea: New Hampshire’s definitions of what constitutes adequate education and what should be funded would focus on the ability to improve student outcomes.

The bill is prompted by the findings of the 2020 School Funding Review Commission, chaired by Luneau, which found that New Hampshire’s unequal school funding system was forcing some cities to pay more in US dollars. local taxes to get the same test results.

Rather than tying state dollars to the number of low-income students, the commission found that the Department of Education should tie funding to schools that fall behind on the metrics that determine whether students have equal opportunity. This could mean that some districts that currently receive state aid receive less, while others receive more. The aid would be phased in over an eight-year period.

It is unclear which districts would benefit from the realignment; the Ministry of Education has not conducted a budget analysis. But Luneau’s bill faces significant obstacles. Last week, the House Education Committee voted unanimously to recommend sending the bill to interim consideration to allow lawmakers to consider it over the summer. This recommendation will come before the Plenary Chamber this week.

Still, Luneau hopes the bill presents a new vision for school funding that could be bipartisan — particularly one that doesn’t raise state taxes. And he said additional months to study the issue could help build that support.

“What we are doing here must be a lasting solution,” he said. “And the way to do that is absolutely to work across the aisle.”

Targeted boost

In the Senate, Senator Erin Hennessey has a more traditional idea to help reduce inequality: keep the current funding formula but give more aid to districts in need.

In a bill with bipartisan support, Hennessey proposes giving “asset-poor” cities — those with low property values ​​— up to $650 per low-income student to augment additional funding that districts are already receiving. Cities with equalized property assessments below $1 million per student would automatically get a $650 increase for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Cities with assessments of up to $6 million per student would receive a sliding scale of aid per student, while those with assessments of $6 million per student and above would receive no additional aid.

The bill would provide direct funding increases to cities that have traditionally struggled. Pittsfield would receive $240,889 over the next two fiscal years, Claremont would receive $854,060 and Berlin $678,123, according to an Education Department analysis attached to the bill. Asset-rich cities, such as Hanover and Wolfeboro, would receive no aid.

For Hennessey, the approach aligns with what she says is Republicans’ broader vision for school funding: adding support to traditional public schools to reduce inequity for the majority of students, while boosting alternatives. for the minority, through charter schools, private schools, and home schooling through educational freedom accounts.

“(The question is) what is best for the children we have, and how are we going to raise them better?” said Hennessy. “And I think that’s a good tool that we can use to fund things in the state.”

The bill also drew support from across the aisle; two Democrats, Senator David Watters of Dover and the late Representative Barbara Shaw of Manchester, sponsored the bill. And it seems to have momentum this year. He left the Senate by a unanimous vote.

Hennessey says she views the $650 relief provision as a potentially permanent addition to the funding formula.

“Now ‘permanent’ depends on future legislatures,” she said. “But that means, ‘Hey, future lawmakers, we need to keep looking at this and make sure we get extra help for the cities that need it most.’ “”

fall short

Yet while lawmakers tinker, some interested observers say neither proposal solves the heart of the problem: property taxes. In testimony to lawmakers, the advocacy group New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project argued that while additional aid to struggling districts is welcome, the solution must be more robust educational investment in the state.

“HB 1680 would fail to achieve the kind of comprehensive reform necessary to ensure that the State of New Hampshire fulfills its constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education for every child,” said Jeff McLynch, director of the group, during testimony before the House Education Committee. after praising Luneau’s bill.

Hennessey’s bill would retain the formula and increase aid on top; Luneau’s bill would revamp the formula but maintain overall state spending levels on education. For McLynch, both ignore the bigger goal.

“While there may be a shared responsibility in providing an adequate education, the responsibility for funding an adequate education for every child rests with the State of New Hampshire and the State alone,” said McLynch.

Luneau said the Legislative Assembly should use the funding and political momentum it currently has.

“By working within the limits of existing state resources, we can significantly improve our ability to fill opportunity gaps,” he said. That means the state’s thorniest education funding question — whether the state needs an income tax — can be avoided for now, Luneau said.

“This may be a discussion that goes on forever in the state,” he added. “But if closing the opportunity gap is put on hold forever, while people debate it, then we’re not doing the right thing for our children.”