NH Education News Digest, March 2023

Dear Friends and Colleagues: 

Last month’s newsletter led with budgets.  This month – well, spoiler alert, we’re going to talk about budgets again, but we want to start with a reminder of what all the numbers mean. This video, which we created to help explain NH’s school funding formula and  show its effects on young people in our state, really illustrates what’s at stake beneath all the number crunching each budget season. It’s just one of many resources in our library that can help contextualize, illustrate, and interpret school funding and other important issues. 

Read on for more details on the Governor’s proposed budget, a key change to the school voucher program approved by the House last month, a bill that would re-start the minimum standards revisions process, and more – and thank you for taking the time to stay informed about education!

The Reaching Higher Team

House passes public school requirement for voucher program, approves funding bills

On Thursday, February 23, the New Hampshire House passedHouse Bill (HB) 430, which would add a public school attendance requirement to the state’s school voucher program eligibility requirements. The bill aims to restore the program to its original intent of providing alternatives for income-qualifying students currently enrolled in public schools. In the 2022-23 school year, more than 75% of school voucher recipients were already enrolled in private or homeschool programs before receiving a school voucher. The NH Department of Education estimates that the program, which was passed as part of the state budget in 2021 despite strong public opposition, will cost the state more than $80 million in taxpayer dollars between 2021 and the end of 2025. The House Finance Committee will now study the fiscal impact of the bill before sending it back to the House.

During its two-day session on Wednesday and Thursday, the House also passed HB 529, which restores two targeted funding sources for high-need communities, and HB 601, which would streamline school meal participation by allowing the state to participate in the Medicaid Direct Certification Program. Those bills will also be sent to the House Finance Committee.

Governor’s budget includes changes to school funding formula

Governor Chris Sununu’s proposed budget for the 24-25 biennium, unveiled on Tuesday, February 14, introduces some key policy changes in education, including changes in school funding, an expansion of the school voucher program, and special funding for computer science and civics. 

Reaching Higher presented a webinar providing preliminary information on the budget immediately after it was released. Our slideshow can be viewed here, and the recording will be released in the coming days. Our team is working on a long-term financial impact model for the changes to see how the budget will impact each of our schools and communities. We’ll provide much more information and analysis as details emerge. 

HB 371 would restart process of updating minimum standards

A bill introduced in the House Education Committee last month would restart the process of updating the state’s Minimum Standards for Public School Approval (also known as the ED 306 administrative rules). The New Hampshire Department of Education (NHED) began updating the minimum standards, which serve as the foundation for all of the state’s public schools, in 2020, in a process marked by secrecy and concerns about conflicts of interest. The draft revisions also include substantial changes that could undermine and destabilize the state’s public schools. The draft revisions are on the agenda for the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday, March 9. 

The new bill, HB 371, would create a commission composed of teachers and content experts, behavioral health and special education experts, parents, and students, to review and recommend changes and updates to the minimum standards. Meetings, minutes, and other materials would be accessible to the public.

“HB 371 gives New Hampshire an opportunity to start over, so that everyone can have a seat at the table and a voice for what we want for our students, our schools, and our state’s future,” said Christina Pretorius, Reaching Higher NH’s Policy Director.  “This process must authentically engage students, families, and communities, so we can build a collective vision for our public schools, and have a strong foundation for each child to learn, grow, and thrive.” 
After voting 10-10 on both an Ought To Pass motion and an Inexpedient To Legislate motion (which would be a recommendation to kill the bill), the House Education Committee will be sending HB 371 to the full House with no recommendation. 

Cardona calls for increased investments in schools, better teacher pay

Ensuring that our nation’s public schools can meet the changing needs of all students and set a high bar for learning will require strong investments, including better pay for teachers, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in an address presenting the Department of Education’s vision for 2023. Announcing the Department’s “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” initiative, Cardona stressed the importance of strong postsecondary pathways and meaningful mental health supports as well as adequate funding to continue the improvements made by the recent infusion of federal relief funds. The funds were intended to “accelerate reopening and recovery, not to fill decades of underinvestment in education funding and support for students,” Cardona said. “Now as leaders, it’s time for us to stand up for students and expect more in education.”

Report gives NH an ‘F’ for school funding distribution

In its annual “Making the Grade” report for 2022, the Education Law Center gave New Hampshire a failing grade for the way it distributes education funds. Though the state received an A for its level of funding, the F in funding distribution underscores the well-documented inequities built into New Hampshire’s school funding formula – which is currently the subject of multiple lawsuits.

In the report, which offers a yearly snapshot of funding conditions around the country, New Hampshire was among 17 states deemed to have a regressive distribution system – meaning districts with higher levels of poverty receive less funding than those with lower levels of poverty. It ranked second only to Nevada in regressiveness and was the most regressive of all the New England states. 

‘Coalition communities’ say current funding formula is working

In the latest development in school funding litigation, a group of property-wealthy communities asked the court to maintain the current distribution formula – which allocates more money to school districts that need it least. The statement came in response to a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of five property owners that claims the statewide education property tax (SWEPT) in its current form is unconstitutional. Technically a state tax, SWEPT is retained by municipalities: Those that raise more through taxes than required are allowed to keep the excess. The lawsuit, which was filed in Grafton Superior Court last summer, focuses on taxpayer inequities, while an earlier lawsuit, known as the ConVal lawsuit, focuses on student inequities. Read more about the lawsuit here

NH voters head to local polls next week

While the NH Legislature is reviewing the state budget for the next biennium, voters will have their say on district budgets and governance on Election Day, next Tuesday, March 14. Community members demonstrated strong support for public schools last Election Day, with pro-public education school board candidates prevailing over well-funded public school critics in many towns and school budgets passing in communities that had rejected them the prior year. This year, as districts feel the effects of the state’s 2021 funding cuts and await next year’s state budget, some district leaders say their school budgets are extremely tight and still represent an increase for taxpayers. “There’s not an extra dime,” John Stark School District Superintendent told Reaching Higher. If you missed that story last month, read it here

Pay hikes, school funding, licensing reform highlight Sununu budget address
New Hampshire Bulletin, Annmarie Timmins and Ethan DeWitt, February 15, 2023

Will new education funding reach NH districts most in need? 
Boston Globe, Amanda Gokee, February 21, 2023

This High School Class Partnered With a Law School Program. Here’s What Both Learned
Education Week, Madeline Will, February 17, 2023

The Equity Imperative of the Place-Bound Student
Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Lawrence A. Galizio, February 28, 2023

Governors call for higher teacher salaries amid continued hiring struggles in schools
Chalkbeat, Julian Shen-Berro, February 23, 2023