Education funding formula, voucher expansion and computer science are topics of interest in state budget 

By EILEEN O’GRADY

Monitor staff

Published: 02-15-2023 7:12 PM

Education took a central role in Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget priorities for the next two years, with changes to the school funding formula and support to boost computer science and a civics curriculum. 

In his budget address to the state legislature Tuesday, Sununu announced a plan to adjust New Hampshire’s long-critiqued school funding formula to increase the amount that the state contributes to education and reduce the amount that local property taxpayers contribute. The plan is to increase the base aid rate the state gives to districts per student by 25% and the Free and Reduced meal aid rate by 30%. The budget would also phase in targeted aid to “property-poor” towns to increase school funding by 2% annually.

“Right now the education funding formula is overly complicated and fundamentally imbalanced, creating an unspent surplus each year,” Sununu said. “This proposal simplifies things.”

As the vast majority of New Hampshire’s education funding comes from property taxes, critics say schools in “property-poor” districts are not equal with schools in “property-rich” communities, which violates the state Constitution. The pending “Con Val” lawsuit filed in 2019 argues that the state’s per-pupil funding isn’t enough, while another lawsuit filed in June 2022 argues the state relies too much on local taxpayers to provide education funding.

On Tuesday Zack Sheehan, project director at the N.H. School Funding Fairness Project, called Sununu’s budget proposal a “step in the right direction” but said the amount of state funding proposed doesn’t fully alleviate the high percentage taxpayers must contribute.

“A permanent, ongoing increase to base adequacy and targeted aid to school districts with more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch will help students and taxpayers in every school district, especially districts with the most need,” Sheehan said. “While this is a step in the right direction, there are opportunities to target funding even more to the communities that need it most, like restoring fiscal capacity disparity aid which helps communities with the lowest property values and highest taxes.”

Sununu’s budget proposes an additional $200 million to school districts over the next two years, with priority towards school districts that need it most. Sununu said the funding will also be used for charter schools and it would double the amount available in the Education Freedom Accounts program, which allows low-income students to use state funding to pay for private school.

A lawsuit filed in December 2022 over Education Freedom Accounts argued that using public money to fund private schools is unconstitutional.

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“Critics say these programs have grown too large,” Sununu said. “To them, I say this: when a new door of opportunity is opened and our citizens race through it in record numbers, that is not an out-of-control system – that is government finally working.”

Sununu also unveiled a proposal Tuesday to allocate  $5 million for a new initiative to increase computer science curriculums in schools. The money would fund a free credentialing system and pay incentives to new computer science teachers, and to implement a FIRST Robotics program in every middle and high school.

“There is absolutely no job of the future that will not rely on computers or computer science in some form,” Sununu  said. “...I believe that computer science virtually guarantees that anyone with those skills won’t end up in poverty.”

Sununu is proposing $2 million to develop and update a New Hampshire-based civics curriculum for students. New Hampshire’s only social studies curriculum framework is from 2006, despite a state law requiring the standards to be updated every 10 years. The state’s Department of Education was in the process of updating the social studies standards when the pandemic hit in March 2020, according to the department, and the project was put on hold.

“I believe understanding our system encourages participation in our system,” Sununu said. “We need to maintain our example for America with our community-based approach to government and community.”

In addition, Sununu announced funding from the budget will be used to construct a statue of the late teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe at the State House.

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