State legislators consider new way to calculate education funding post-pandemic

Monitor staff
Published: 3/25/2021 4:05:56 PM

The concern is high for New Hampshire school district superintendents that a COVID-related drop in student enrollment will cause education funding to plummet next year. But help could be on the way in the form of a bill now in the New Hampshire House that seeks to maintain current levels of education funding by calculating it using data from before the pandemic.

The bill, SB 135, would require the New Hampshire Department of Education to compare the average daily membership numbers for each district from both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and use whichever number is larger to calculate funding for school year 2021-22.

“What this bill does is fix some unforeseen challenges that our schools have had as a result of the pandemic,” said Sen. Erin Hennessey, the Littleton Republican who sponsored the bill, at a House Education Committee hearing Thursday.

Many districts saw significant drops in student enrollment last fall as parents opted to switch their children to private or home school due to the pandemic. Since a large part of public school costs are covered by per-pupil “adequacy aid,” calculated based on enrollment numbers from the year before, 2020 numbers could cause school districts to lose millions of dollars in 2021-22, even if the students end up returning next fall. 

For New Hampshire public schools (including public academies), enrollment dropped 5% from 171,940 in October 2019 to 163,364 in October 2020, according to state Department of Education data. Conversely, non-public school enrollment increased 3% from 15,835 in 2019 to 16,295 in 2020. Public charter school enrollment increased 7% from 4,228 to 4,545. 

Additionally, this year fewer parents filled out Free and Reduced Lunch forms, which are required to calculate aid, meaning schools could lose funding there too.

“If a school, for some reason, didn’t see a drop in average daily membership … and the calculation for the funding is that they'd get more this year than next year, they’d get that,” Hennessey said. “But if for some reason they see a drop in their attendance because of COVID and they have not received back their Free and Reduced Lunch forms, they will receive the higher of the calculation for next year or the funding that they received this year.”

John Goldhardt, superintendent of Manchester School District, testified in support of the bill Thursday, saying that Manchester experienced a student enrollment drop this year, mostly in kindergarten and first grade.

“We think many of these students will return next year when we are back to what we hope is a more normal year,” Goldhardt said. “I like this bill because it helps districts like us be held harmless.”

Jerry Frew of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association also testified in support of the bill. 

“The most struggling communities and the most struggling students are the ones who will benefit the most from a positive action on this legislation,” Frew said. “This loss of revenue for school districts is dramatic in those communities that need it most.”

SB 135 has a fiscal impact of approximately $45 million for the state. Hennessy said the bill would also help New Hampshire meet federal “maintenance of equity” requirements, a caveat that the state must maintain its same level of education funding as previous years in order to receive the projected $350 million in federal aid to Granite State schools from President Biden’s recent COVID-19 relief bill.

The federal government has already agreed to a similar arrangement, allowing state education departments to use the best available Free and Reduced Lunch data to calculate federal funding amounts, according to Mark Manganiello, program support administrator at the New Hampshire Department of Education. This bill addresses state funding.

Three amendments to the bill were proposed in the House hearing Thursday. One, proposed by the Department of Education, would allow them to use 2018-19 third grade reading level data when calculating state stipends, since recent testing data has been irregular.

The second, proposed by Hopkinton Democrat Rep. David Luneau, seeks to extend the state’s Fiscal Capacity Disparity grant, which gave property-poor towns additional state funding, through 2023. The third, also proposed by Luneau, would extend part of a 2020-21 equitable grant for districts with low-income families. 

The bill has already passed in the New Hampshire senate on Feb. 18, and is currently in the House Education Committee. Members have until May 6 to move the bill out of committee. If it passes, it will proceed to the House Finance Committee.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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