Commission begins reexamining public school funding

The Commission to Study School Funding, a group of six lawmakers and ten members of the public, had their third meeting of the year on Monday, February 3. The group will spend the next year researching the way New Hampshire funds its schools, and is tasked with proposing recommendations to make the formula more equitable.  

The Commission will begin with a research phase, during which members will get a better understanding of how New Hampshire and other states allocate funding to their communities. Lawmakers are unlikely to consider any school funding issues this session, waiting until the Commission issues its final recommendations later in the year.

The first phase will be crucial to any recommendations, said Commission Chairman Dave Luneau, a third-term State Representative who represents Hopkinton and Concord.   

“Some people might think they already know everything about it, and I think all of us bring a fair amount of experience in terms of education funding, past, present, future… but we need to understand what’s going on here in New Hampshire in order for us to be able to move into the second phase,” he told the Commission at their meeting on January 13. “[W]e’re not going to get to a final answer without considering, what are all the different possible ways of solving this problem?”

Members of the Commission include: 

  • William Ardinger (Concord, NH-based attorney)
  • John Beardmore (Former Commissioner of the NH Department of Revenue Administration)
  • Jane Bergeron-Beaulieu (Executive Director, NH Association of Special Education Administrators)
  • Corinne Cascadden (Former superintendent of the Berlin School District)
  • Chris Dwyer (Portsmouth City Councilor)
  • Iris Estabrook (Former Chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, served on the 2008 school funding legislative committee)
  • Susan Huard (Former President of Manchester Community College)
  • David Ryan (SAU 16 Superintendent)
  • Barbara Tremblay (Former educator and administrator)
  • Val Zanchuk (President and Owner of Graphicast, Inc.)
  • Representative Dave Luneau (Concord and Hopkinton)
  • Representative Richard Ames (Jaffrey)
  • Representative Rick Ladd (Haverhill) 
  • Representative Mel Myler (Contoocook)
  • Senator Jay Kahn (District 10)
  • Senator Jon Morgan (District 23)

Why now?

School funding has been a debate throughout New Hampshire for decades. About 62% of New Hampshire public schools’ revenues come from local property taxes, while the state accounts for about 28% of the total revenue.  

School districts in New Hampshire spend about $16,000 per student, which is among the highest in the nation, but the state provides districts with about $3,700 per student.owns and cities must make up the difference, usually through local property taxes. 

“It’s a very low amount that we are spending per pupil… [W]e are second to last in terms of state funding to school districts. But, we are actually in the top ten spending per pupil,” explained Caitlin Davis, a Program Director at the NH Department of Education.

The state’s highest court has required that the state fully fund an “adequate education,” in three Supreme Court cases known as the “Claremont lawsuits.” And in 2018, a group of school districts led by the ConVal School District sued the state again over the way it funds schools, arguing that the approximately $3,700 per student that the state provides to districts does not cover the cost of providing an adequate education. 

In 2019, lawmakers boosted state funding for education by $138 million over two years by fully restoring stabilization grants and reinstituting the Fiscal Capacity Disparity Aid (FCDA) program, which gives property-poor towns additional state funding. But the FCDA program expires at the end of 2021, putting more pressure on lawmakers to find a solution. 

The Commission will also be reviewing the school building aid program, which is coming out of a decade-long moratorium. Historically, the state helped school districts pay for renovations, additions, and other projects through a grant program. But in 2008, the state put a hold on awarding money for new projects.

The moratorium was lifted in 2019, but most of the $50 million per year that is allotted for the program goes to payments on previously awarded projects. According to the NH DOE, there would be roughly $32 million available for new projects in 2020-2021. The DOE estimated that, in 2018, there were over $650 million in backlogged projects. 

How is this Commission different?

Lawmakers have been grappling over school funding for decades. This is the third time in a little more than a decade that lawmakers have tried to come together to address the issue. In 2008, they created the “base adequacy” formula that is today’s foundation for school funding; in 2018, a different group of lawmakers studied the formula and made recommendations that ultimately weren’t adopted by the state. 

But this Commission is different in a few key ways:

  1. It includes members of the public. In addition to lawmakers, members include superintendents, educators, school funding experts, and other members of the public, adding a number of critical perspectives into the decision making process.
  2. It includes funding for research and public outreach. The state awarded $500,000 for this Commission to carry out necessary research, community engagement and outreach initiatives, project management, and other expenses.
  3. It has a focus on equity. Other committees have focused on cost and the inputs of schooling. This Commission has a stated focus on equity, and is tasked with determining an equitable method to fund our public schools. 

They have until September 2020 to issue recommendations, but lawmakers are working on extending that deadline out to as far as January 2021. 

Our Involvement

In late 2018, the board and staff of Reaching Higher NH determined that our leading organizational policy priority will be to inform and support public engagement on the issue of school funding. We believe that re-exploring how NH funds its public schools is among the most important public policy opportunities of our time. To that end and for the foreseeable future, a lot of our policy work will be focused on providing you all, the NH public, with the timely research and resources you need to understand and make informed decisions about school funding policies in NH. This work will include in-depth original research, like our Whole Picture of Public Education project, as well community engagement initiatives, and public awareness and information efforts. 

Join our network of New Hampshire parents, educators, business leaders, and community members who are interested in school funding. 

As part of the network, you’ll receive regular updates on Reaching Higher NH research, legislative advancements in school funding, the work of the Commission, and exclusive information on our community engagement initiatives.