Capital Beat: Another commission, another attempt to overhaul state’s education funding

Monitor staff
Published: 1/18/2020 6:37:35 PM
Modified: 1/18/2020 6:36:39 PM

The commission members had shaken hands and made their introductions. Now they were seated in a horseshoe, ready for the first in a year’s worth of meetings to fix New Hampshire’s education funding once and for all.

But one member of the Commission to Study School Funding had seen it all before.

Iris Estabrook was a party to the 2000 blue-ribbon education funding commission as a state representative. She was a member of the 2008 commission to find an updated solution under Gov. John Lynch.

And on Monday, she was back at the table, one of 15 members of the 2020 commission ready to try again.

“I think that there are certain things that remain the same,” she said in opening remarks.

It’s true. The stakes are similarly high. Just as in 2000 and 2008, New Hampshire’s school funding landscape is fractured. Schools from town to town command wildly different resources.

And just as before, future actions by the state Supreme Court loom over lawmakers as they try to fix it.

But as the newly formed and well-funded group seeks to pull together consensus they can rally the Legislature around, Estabrook hopes commission members can learn from the past – and build on it.

“I’m here with the knowledge – having lived through this experience – that lasting solutions to issues as big as this are not arrived at with a one-time look,” she told the room at the commission’s organizational meeting.

The group has some ammunition this time around. They have $500,000, doled out in the compromise two-year budget last year alongside a near-record spending increase for state support of schools.

And they have expertise, with a panel of administrators at the heart of the funding crisis – including former Berlin superintendent Corrine Cascadden – former educators and clued-in lawmakers.

They also have a time crunch, with just over a year to finish their work. And they’re working in the shadow of a new lawsuit over New Hampshire’s funding structure, brought by the Contoocook Valley School District and set to hit the state Supreme Court later this year.

If the high court deals a sobering ruling against the state, as it has in the past, the commission’s work could be more important than ever.

On Monday, commission chairman Dave Luneau, a Democratic Hopkinton representative, sought to kick things off on a hopeful note.

“We understand that there’s a significant challenge, a significant problem, and we need to do something,” Luneau said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re running for state rep or state senator, or school board member. When you’re knocking on doors, first thing our constituents say is, ‘What are you doing about property taxes; what are you doing about education funding.’ ”

It’s not as if lawmakers haven’t made an effort recently. Last year, budget writers bolstered the per-pupil funding formula and put in an increase of $138 million over two years.

That was a move they said would help equalize the massive funding differences between towns and help mitigate rising local property taxes.

But those investments were made during an abnormally flush year for state revenues – after a one-off tax incentive passed in Congress brought in millions more than normal. And given the now-dropping revenue estimates, they were not intended to be the final fix.

On Monday, even strong supporters of the spending boost admitted that that investment was not a long-term adjustment.

“I think that we tried very hard through this legislative session to grapple with funding inequities,” said Sen. Jay Kahn, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

But, he added, “It wound up costing a significant amount of money, using some one-time funds to do it. So the sustainability of that thought, as in the numbers, may not be as possible as the concepts that were used.”

Now, two challenges face the commission: figuring out what the new approach might look like and finding a way to pay for it.

That second question is usually what throws off hopes of a compromise.

“That’s a very, very, very difficult issue,” said Rep. Dick Ames, a Jaffrey Democrat. “Both are extraordinarily difficult. Maybe on the revenue side, politics intrudes, but we need to just go at it.”

History lessons

New Hampshire’s school funding formula has lurched wildly in recent years.

Since the landmark Claremont Supreme Court decision in 1997, New Hampshire has struggled with its court-ordered constitutional obligation to provide an “adequate” education. That’s what the invention of the base adequacy formula – currently starting at around $3,700 per pupil, plus additional amounts for specific situations – sought to do.

Through the years, that formula weathered numerous shifts, including the creation of additional “stabilization funds” for struggling school districts after the 2009 recession, the gradual reduction of those funds in 2016 and their restoration last year.

For Estabrook, what’s old is new again. The first commission she sat on set up that initial formula. The second sought to rectify it.

Skip ahead 12 years, and little would appear to have changed. Estabrook says she can only hope that things will be different.

“We’re operating under a lot of the same constraints of the court’s ruling in terms of what we are and are not allowed to consider,” she said. “So, it’s just gonna take some creativity to create something better.”

For Eastabrook, what’s lacking among policymakers is not good intentions. There are plenty of those.

But to actually deliver the lasting change, the commission must think bigger than the adequacy formula, Estabrook argued.

“The issue of inequity was big on our minds in the past, and we were constrained in many ways by the court’s rulings,” she said. “... And then we realized that you cannot address these issues of inequity without going beyond that.”

Answer

That’s an idea that could turn expensive. And it could draw opposition from the governor’s office and fiscally minded lawmakers.

Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget did not include increases to the state adequacy formula. Instead, the governor included large increases to state building aid grants – a one-off expenditure that Sununu argued could bolster struggling schools’ budgets without committing the state to unsustainable funding increases.

The governor signed the budget compromise with the understanding that some of the two-year funding increases would be ongoing, such as the restoration in stabilization grants, special education aid, full-day kindergarten funds and transportation aid.

But other increases were hoped to be short term.

Still, the goal of moving away from the existing formula is one with bipartisan agreement – even if the solutions from both parties differ.

To Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican and former chairman of the House Education Committee, the state has done little but waffle for two decades.

“We have some real issues, so chipping away at this old formula isn’t the way to go,” Ladd said. “We’ve gotta go back, redefine and march forward with a funding formula that’s going to serve all.”

Ladd has one suggestion: that the state move away from a strictly per-pupil formulation in how it distributes funds and look at other factors that could affect how much one district needs over another – like the length of bus routes and other economic variables.

But Luneau, the commission chair, said he’d rather the panel keep an open mind and poll experts and stakeholders before racing to conclusions.

“I’ve had people come up to me over the last few months and say, ‘Hey Dave, I already know the answer!’ ” Luneau said. “So what I’ve been telling these people is, ‘Okay that’s great, but hold on to that because we’re not there yet.’ ”

Part of the $500,000 is meant to help with that. Luneau said he hopes it will help pay for independent research into a new funding approach that can suit the state.

Light on the right

Meanwhile, the commission could face an optics problem.

Of the 15 members, all but one have been picked by members of the Democratic Legislature, with seven picked by House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, four by Senate President Donna Soucy, and three by Luneau himself.

Of the six lawmakers chosen, only one – Ladd – is a Republican.

And only one member was chosen by Sununu: Concord lawyer and former University System of New Hampshire board member William Ardinger.

That prompted some concern from Rep. Werner Horn, a Franklin Republican who warned the committee not to succumb to political temptation.

“There is $500,000 being spent on this commission,” he said Monday. “It cannot be allowed to be a partisan tool for somebody’s agenda. The importance of the students in the state is too important.”

Members of the commission took issue with the characterization, assuring Horn and the public they would remain independent and deliberate.

And with mere months to accomplish their mandate, they said, it’s time to hit the ground running.

“I think we’re up for the task,” Ames said. “Lets go for it.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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