The House Education Committee voted 11-9 along party lines on Thursday, May 20, to retain a bill designed to close gaps in state funding for schools in the coming biennium. SB 135 would have restored about $45 million of the $89 million funding gap that schools are facing later this year. Additional amendments — which were not heard due to the vote to retain — would have extended targeted aid to level fund schools in 2022, and sent additional funds to the districts with the highest need.
Read Reaching Higher NH’s analysis comparing the proposals here.
The partisan vote and the heated debate preceding it were in sharp contrast with the bill’s reception in the Senate, where it passed 24-0 in February.
Supporters of the bill argued that chronic school funding inequities have been amplified during the pandemic and need to be addressed. They also noted that failure to address the funding gap at the state level will force communities to raise property taxes or make painful budget cuts.
“To retain this bill is to kill this bill,” said Rep. Linda Tanner (D-Sunapee). “It kills hope for many schools, many communities.”
About the funding gap
School districts are facing an $89 million drop in state funding this fall, mainly due to three factors:
- Targeted aid programs will expire: Currently, districts with lower tax capacity and higher proportions of students navigating poverty receive additional funding, which will end at the end of this school year;
- Enrollment drops due to the pandemic: Since New Hampshire funds its public schools on a per-student basis, drops in enrollment due to the pandemic will mean drops in funding for next year, even if those students return to their schools; and,
- School meal waiver: New Hampshire provides extra funding for students who enroll in free and reduced-price lunch programs, but the federal government provided a waiver that allows schools to provide meals to all children, regardless of eligibility. As a result, there has been a 25% drop in the number of students who “enrolled” in the program, which has led to a substantial drop in school funding.
Proposals to address the gap
Governor Sununu’s budget proposal restored about $16.7 million of the $89 million drop by allowing the state to use a proportion method to calculate state aid for the next school year. However, school leaders and taxpayers have said that it isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of their communities, particularly as they reopen and recover from the pandemic.
Senator Erin Hennessey (R-Littleton) proposed SB 135 earlier this year, which would use a student count method to calculate school funding for the 2021-2022 school year and restore about $45 million of the $89 million gap. SB 135 would account for the enrollment drop and school meal waiver, but would not extend the targeted aid programs. The proposal unanimously passed the Senate in March.
Rep. Dave Luneau (D-Hopkinton) was expected to propose two amendments that would have extended the targeted aid programs and restored about $60 million in funding for the state’s highest-need districts. He was also expected to offer an amendment that would have extended SB 135 to the 2022-2023 school year, and relieve districts of having to make the choice between providing food security to their children and ensuring they receive the state funding their communities need.
Lawmakers who voted to retain the bill suggested that schools had received an adequate infusion of funds through federal aid. Advocates of SB 135 disputed that claim, arguing that federal relief funds were one-time funds designed to address new and unanticipated expenses created by the pandemic.
Some lawmakers also claimed that the committee needs more time to consider school funding bills in light of other funding measures that have already been passed. Supporters of SB 135 said the legislature has been stalling long enough in fully addressing school funding.
“By retaining this bill, it basically is saying, ‘we’re not ready to deal with this,’” Rep. Mel Myler (D-Contoocook) told the committee. “We’ve been dealing with this forever. Schools cannot wait another year.”