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Our Turn: School funding report improves fairness for students and taxpayers

Published: 12/27/2020 6:30:14 AM

We have a lot to be proud of in New Hampshire when it comes to our public schools. On average, our kids perform among the best in the country. But averages can hide the complete story.

In some communities our students excel, while in other towns students lack the resources to succeed in school. We can all agree this is not just a problem limited to individual communities – this is a problem for our economy, our workforce, our businesses, and the civic health of our state.

New Hampshire has a constitutional mandate to provide, in the words of the state Supreme Court, an “adequate” education to every student in the state. For the state to follow through on this obligation, it is necessary to understand the costs necessary for each district to provide the opportunity for an adequate education and make sure every district has access to the financial resources to pay for it.

Last year, the General Court created an independent commission to study school funding as part of the 2020-2021 state budget. The commission was comprised of both legislators and members of the public and was charged to define the cost of an adequate education and recommend how to pay for it.

During eight months of investigation, research, and public engagement, the inequities facing our state’s education system were brought into sharp relief. For the first time in decades, the commission engaged a national research team with expertise in education data analysis, the American Institutes for Research, to help us understand the problem.

We partnered with the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH to support our efforts and help us engage groups across the Granite State – including civic leaders, educators, taxpayer associations, students, and senior citizens – to hear perspectives on the challenges facing New Hampshire’s educational system and to receive feedback on potential solutions.

On a per-pupil basis, New Hampshire spends more on public schools than most other states at nearly $3.3 billion annually. Despite this, many Granite Staters do not have a strong understanding of how public schools are funded.

Over the last two decades, the state’s share of school funding has declined from 54% to 31%, the lowest in the nation. Today, nearly two-thirds of school funding comes from our local property taxes, leading directly to wide disparities between wealthy and poorer communities.

Prior attempts at school funding reform have been limited by the definition of what constitutes an opportunity for an adequate education. The student-teacher ratio used in the state’s current school funding formula is 30:1.

Is an adequate education the opportunity to sit in a classroom with 29 other students? Or is it the opportunity for students to achieve comparable outcomes regardless of where they live?

Some school districts significantly outperform the state-average, but many are not even close, including schools in our largest cities.

Our current “one size fits all” approach leaves many districts without the financial resources to meet student performance objectives and places unfair demands on taxpayers in communities without an abundance of property wealth. A school funding plan that is equitable for students and taxpayers will embrace an education cost formula designed for each school district to achieve statewide comparable student outcomes, apply state grants to make sure districts have access to the resources they need to fund their budgets, and provide a robust state-funded property-tax- relief program for low- and moderate-income homeowners.

The commission’s final report offers examples of how to create a fairer system for New Hampshire’s students and taxpayers through policy approaches that use actual New Hampshire data, current funding levels, and existing revenue sources.

The commission reviewed the evidence and created a set of recommendations based on facts, evidence, and a commitment to the best education possible for students and a fairer system for hardworking taxpayers.

There is a better path forward for education funding, and it is high time the Legislature and governor enact durable legislation to give all our kids the fair shot they deserve.

Fair funding for public education does not require new taxes, like proponents of the status quo might contend. We can take a student-centered approach where all our kids can achieve comparable outcomes. We can make sure all districts have access to the resources they need. And we can get better results from the tax dollars we already spend, and provide measurable criteria by which students, taxpayers and employers can benefit. We can do this.

We ask that taxpayers and employers get involved and make sure all New Hampshire communities have strong public schools. If we are going to attract young people and businesses to the state, it will be because our communities have strong schools, a well-educated workforce, and equitable outcomes for students regardless of a ZIP code or family background.

This is the yardstick that should define the New Hampshire advantage.

(Rep. Mel Myler is the ranking member of the House Education Committee. Sen. Jay Kahn is the ranking member of the Senate Education Committee. Rep. Dave Luneau is chair of the Commission to Study School Funding. The commission’s final report is available at carsey.unh.edu/school-funding.)


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