Editorial: Equity remains the biggest issue in N.H. education

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Support for education is high on the Gov. Chris Sununu’s agenda, but what that might mean for the state and its students is not yet clear. Barring a substantial increase in state revenue, new or more generous programs can only be created by robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Sununu has expressed support for increased state aid to pay for full-day kindergarten. He wants to increase funding for the nearly moribund school building aid program – though perhaps 50 schools are sorely in need of replacement or refurbishment, the state school board had money to assist with only one last year. He favors more money for the state’s university system. Most of all, he is a strong proponent of what its proponents call school choice.

The term can mean using public money to pay for students to attend private schools, something that can now be done only with the approval of the state school board, or opening or expanding charter schools. It can mean issuing publicly-funded vouchers that parents can use to help pay private school costs, something the state hasn’t approved. New Hampshire has just 25 charter schools. All of them are funded with taxpayer money augmented by grants, donations and fundraising. No for-profit charter school does business in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has roughly 200,000 students in grades K-12. Just 3,000 of them attend charter schools. That could change. President Trump appointed billionaire charter school advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the federal Department of Education. Locally, Sununu picked primary opponent Frank Edelblut, a businessman and home-schooler, to head the state’s education department.

Most charter schools are started by passionate parents. Whether they grow in number will depend on money. A Republican president and Congress could increase federal funding for charter schools. It’s now next to nothing. New Hampshire charter schools receive, according to the governor, just 40 percent of the per-pupil state education aid. Sununu wants that to change, but additional state or federal money should not come at the expense of struggling public schools and beleaguered local property taxpayers. In fact, the debate over charter school funding should be considered a sideshow. The main event, as it has been for more than four decades, remains the governor and Legislature’s failure to fund public education in a fair, equitable and adequate way.

The state average cost to educate one student is closing in on $15,000 per year. Next year, it will pay $3,636 of that to maintain the fiction that it’s covering the cost of an “adequate” education.

Thanks to low education aid and a chronic state downshifting of financial responsibility to cities and towns, property taxes increased by 25 percent in Merrimack County since 2008. Some places, including the five communities that sued the state over education funding two decades ago, have fared even worse. The current property rate in Claremont, the city whose name became synonymous with the lawsuit, is $42.64 cents per $1,000 valuation. Sixty percent of the money raised goes to pay for public education. In Allenstown the tax rate is $33.86; Pittsfield $32.25. Conversely, the tax rate in property-rich New Castle is $5.85 per $1,000. In Moultonborough it’s $8.74; New London, $15.67.

Last summer, this paper published a series of stories on the plight of senior citizens struggling to keep from being taxed out of their homes. The situation now is no better. The schools in property-poor towns can’t provide the kind of education offered by wealthier towns and employers know it. No business wants to move to a community with a sky-high tax rate. Adding more charter schools isn’t going to change that, make the tax system more equitable, or give the students in property-poor towns a fair shake.