The big question for 2019: How will we pay for our schools?

This is part 1 of a 5-part series on education funding in New Hampshire, from Reaching Higher NH.

The way New Hampshire pays for its schools has been a hot topic for decades. With recent tweaks to the education funding formula and reductions in funding, many say that towns are at a breaking point. Teacher layoffs, cuts in programming, and even the threat of school closures have pushed the issue into the spotlight, with about 25 bills set to be filed this session.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle hope to find a resolution. “I would hope that is a bipartisan issue… (Education funding) is a No. 1 priority that is hurting towns and cities the most,” Representative Steven Smith (R-Charlestown) told the Valley News.

To understand how we got here and where we may be headed, let’s review the basics of ed funding in New Hampshire:

  • The average cost to educate a student in New Hampshire is about $15,000. Most funding is sourced from the federal, state, and local district levels. The state funds an “adequate education” at about $3,600 per student.
    • Districts receive additional funding for students that qualify for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch program, special education, or English language services
    • Districts receive some targeted federal funding for programs and services (for example, Title I and Medicaid to Schools).
  • Cities and towns must then raise the rest of the funds, mostly through local property taxes.
  • Stabilization grants have decreased 4% per year since 2016, resulting in a total reduction of approximately $6.5 million in state aid annually.

Mounting tensions with the current formula

The current ed funding formula, reductions in stabilization grants, a moratorium on school building aid, and reduced state contributions to the retirement system have contributed to teacher layoffs and reductions in class offerings and programming in many towns.

A growing number of districts are facing school closures: in 2018, Berlin announced that they may have to close its only remaining elementary school, and the ConVal district made plans to downsize from 11 schools to five. Derry has also been exploring closing an elementary school, mobilizing more than 200 residents to a school board meeting in November.

The hardest hit districts are exploring a lawsuit against the state, claiming that the state has failed to comply with its obligation to provide an adequate education for students. Berlin, Claremont, Franklin, Pittsfield, and other districts argue that the state fails on two fronts: by not adequately funding education, and by failing to fund an adequate education with a tax or taxes “equal in valuation and uniform in rate” throughout the state, since there are such wide disproportionalities in property tax rates.

In November, a legislative committee wrapped up a year-long study on the funding formula and made recommendations for changes, including an increase of the base adequacy amount and proposing a grant program for the state’s least wealthy towns. A sole member and the incoming Chair of the House Education Committee, Representative Mel Myler (D-Contoocook), issued a minority report that disagreed with the findings. In the report, he said that the committee didn’t go far enough and continued a history of “playing at the margins,” rather than addressing the vast inequities of the current formula.

Upcoming proposals for the 2019 session:

  • Members of the legislative committee that studied the funding formula are expected to propose a bill that would increase the base adequacy amount from $3,636 to $3,897 and increase differentiated aid for students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch from $1,818 per student to $2,500 per student
  • Representative Marjorie Porter (D- Hillsborough) is expected to submit a bill that will increase the base adequacy from $3,636 to $8,000 per student, according to NHPR
  • Representative Mel Myler, the incoming Chairman of the House Education Committee and member of the legislative committee that studied the funding formula, is expected to propose a bill that would create a school finance commission to further study the formula, recommending changes to the formula, identifying the causes of cost increases, and addressing inequities in student outcomes
  • Representative Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill), the former Chairman of the House Education Committee and a member of the legislative committee that studied the funding formula, proposed HB 177, a bill that would freeze cuts to stabilization grants
  • Senator Regina Birdsell (R-District 19), a member of the adequacy committee, is expected to propose a bill that would restore stabilization grants to their 2012 levels

Stay tuned! Reaching Higher will  be unpacking important elements of the education funding formula in the coming weeks so that more Granite Staters can join the conversation and make informed decisions on what it all means for our children, classrooms, and communities! Look for breakdowns on: