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Editorial: The same old education funding story

Published: 6/25/2017 12:05:15 AM

They may not have been able to show their work – that is, back it up with charts, graphs and statistics – but hundreds if not thousands of school superintendents, principals, teachers, municipal officials and property owners would have correctly answered the questions the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies recently asked: Has anything changed in the 20 years since the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its second Claremont school funding decision? Have the per-pupil spending disparities between property-rich and property-poor towns diminished? Has the gap between the tax rates paid to fund education in towns with fat and lean tax bases narrowed?

The answers are no, no and no.

Last year, the resort town of Waterville Valley spent $31,269 per elementary school pupil. Milan, about 75 miles north, spent just $10,239. The tax rate in New Castle was $5.85 per $1,000 valuation, 19 cents of which went for education. The tax rate in Pittsfield was $32.25. Half of that was education-driven.

The historic state Supreme Court decisions did, for a time, move New Hampshire in the direction of equity in educational opportunity and tax fairness, but the gains were steadily rolled back. The present trajectory for students and taxpayers in much of the state is so bleak that the center titled its report, “Education Finance in New Hampshire: Headed to a Rural Crisis?”

“It was striking to us just how much large swaths of New Hampshire are going to find themselves in education no-man’s land as the enrollment declines and these demographic forces and economic forces play out,” Steve Norton, the center’s director, told Monitor education reporter Lola Duffort.

Norton, and the center’s economist, Greg Bird, weren’t referring solely to sparsely populated North Country towns but to places like Pittsfield and Franklin as well. They have been doomed by state policy to tax themselves heavily yet struggle to provide the kind of quality education that draws residents and employers alike.

Look around. Concord’s recent decision not to add a sorely needed fourth ambulance or full-day kindergarten, Franklin’s struggle to avoid mass teacher layoffs, the rejection of a teachers contract by voters in Weare and Henniker, the attempt to cut Merrimack Valley School District’s budget – all are driven by state policy and a legislatively sanctioned school funding system that, despite the Claremont rulings, has been a bit of a fraud.

Start with the determination, in a state where average per pupil spending tops $16,000 per year, that a court-ordered “adequate” education was $3,636 before lawmakers opted to increase by a generous $30 per year. Add the statewide property tax, which accounts for about half the state’s contribution to public education. It’s just a local property tax under a different name – state money by decree. Nor can the education funding morass – not enough space here to talk about the vanishing state “stabilization” grants for education – be separated from the Legislature’s steady downshifting of expenses to local taxpayers.

The state’s decision to stop contributing 35 percent of public employee retirement costs added $880,000 to Merrimack Valley’s school district budget last year. The decision added $1 million to Concord’s budget, part of what one lawmaker called “the single biggest increase in property taxes ever levied.”

The situation has school districts talking about a return to court in hopes of a decision that might, and we emphasize “might,” force the Legislature to meet its education funding responsibilities.

If that doesn’t happen, then what? The center’s report talked about consolidating rural school districts and “new models of learning,” by which we assume they mean remote learning via video-conferencing, Skype and the like. Then again, as Bird posed as an out-of-the-box idea, people in hardscrabble, rural parts of the state may pick up and move where jobs are plentiful, property taxes are low and schools aren’t struggling, which is what a lot of New Hampshire residents did, let’s see, about 150 years ago.

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