Mary Wilke: Fair education funding will solve ‘ZIP code problem’

For the Monitor
Published: 8/3/2018 12:25:00 AM

John Adams said, “There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

If you agree with our Founding Fathers that a vibrant democracy depends on a strong public education system, then please take notice: Our public schools are under attack. Gov. Chris Sununu, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and their legislative allies are gearing up to ram another school voucher bill through the next legislative session.

The N.H. Republican Party held a conference in June called “Education Savings Accounts: Expanding School Choice in New Hampshire.” Don’t be fooled by the euphemism; the goal of the so-called “school choice” movement is to dismantle what some proponents derisively call “government schools,” one devastating bill at a time. The voucher bill that was narrowly defeated in the last legislative session would have diverted $100 million from public, community-based schools to private schools and home-schooling parents with no public accountability, leaving local property taxpayers with the bill.

The flier for the voucher conference read: “All students, regardless of their ZIP code and income level, deserve the opportunity for an education that fits their unique needs and goals.” I couldn’t agree more, but it’s a cynical pitch, given the source. New Hampshire ranks dead last in the country in state contributions to public schools. More than 20 years after the N.H. Supreme Court found our system of funding public education to be unconstitutional (the “Claremont” decisions), lawmakers continue to underfund schools. Significant disparities among school districts remain, leading some education advocates to consider another lawsuit. But rather than fulfilling his constitutional responsibility to ensure that every child have the opportunity for an adequate education, Sununu has advocated amending the N.H. Constitution to make that responsibility unenforceable in court.

An expensive voucher program serving what the governor promises will be a small number of students will do nothing for the rest of the students who continue to attend public schools in property-poor towns, and his proposed constitutional amendment would grant the state permission to ignore them altogether. If they want to solve the ZIP code problem, the governor and Legislature should be looking for ways to achieve fairness in education funding.

Our current school-funding formula relies so heavily on local taxes that a gross disparity in educational opportunity across ZIP codes is inevitable, because of the significant differences in local tax bases. The town of Rye, for instance, has a lot of high-value property and raises $21,840 for each of its 609 students, with a tax rate of only $5.84 per thousand. At the same time, Pittsfield has to tax itself $19.27 per thousand to raise only $9,084 for each of its 583 pupils. (These are the tax rates “equalized” by the New Hampshire Department of Revenue.) Until we do something to provide comparable resources across diverse school districts, students in property-poor towns will have a huge disadvantage compared with students in property-rich ones, simply because of where they happen to live.

Recent news articles about Franklin School District illustrate this point. Over the past three years, it has eliminated 20 staff positions. Music, art and language classes that its students want and deserve to have (and would have if they lived in, for instance, Bow) are now on the chopping block. Franklin parents who can afford to move elsewhere are reluctantly making plans to do so in order to ensure that their children have a fair chance at a quality education. Those who can’t afford to move are left with the disconcerting feeling that not only they, but also their children, are stuck.

On a statewide basis, the plan championed by Sununu would give vouchers to about 2,000 students. But what about the other 77,000 students who would continue to attend public schools in property-poor towns like Pittsfield and Franklin (towns with below-average equalized property values per pupil)? These are students to whom the governor is still constitutionally responsible, yet the only impact of his voucher plan would be a further depletion of their schools’ cash-strapped budgets.

Most people would agree with the sentiment that ZIP code should not determine opportunity. It seems fundamentally unfair that students living in some school districts are offered significantly greater chances at success than students living in others. If the governor and Republican legislative leaders really care about these inequities across ZIP codes, they’ll stop pushing for privatization programs that will only exacerbate the unfairness.

The honest and direct answer to the ZIP code problem is to devise a fair, equitable and adequate school funding system.

(Mary Wilke, a retired educator, lives in Concord.)

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