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As Democrats press to increase school funding, different approaches emerge

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As Democrats press to increase school funding, different approaches emerge

Jan 30, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Ethan DeWitt
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As Democrats press to increase school funding, different approaches emerge
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Progressive lawmakers and policymakers have long searched for solutions to the state’s inequities in public education funding from town to town. (Getty Images)

Democrats and public school advocates have pushed for years to increase the default amount the state pays public schools per student. 

This year, Rep. Tom Schamberg, a Wilmot Democrat, has a simple solution: Calculate the average amount school districts pay to educate students, cut that number in half, and require the state to pay that half to school districts for each student.

The bill to do that, House Bill 334, would be transformative – and expensive. Schamberg’s approach would increase the state’s current $1 billion annual education budget by another $700 million a year, nearly doubling it.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Education Committee are skeptical. 

Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, criticized the bill as a one-size-fits-all approach that would apply a blanket increase to towns regardless of their economic demographics and property values. The model would give Berlin the same base adequacy money as Waterville Valley, Luneau noted, where a targeted model could account for disparities.

“Would you agree that not every school district and student population, you know, is identical from across the state?” Luneau asked Schamberg during a committee hearing Tuesday. 

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican, posed a fiscal question. “Where will the dollars come from the state budget for this?” he asked during the hearing.

Schamberg said that finding the money would be a matter of re-allocation. “It’s going to take a change in the operating budget and a change in our priorities a little bit,” he said. “Maybe we don’t spend as much on social programs, or we reduce the amount that is spent on social programs.”

Progressive lawmakers and policymakers have long searched for solutions to the state’s inequities in public education funding from town to town, which have driven wide disparities in property taxes and prompted two lawsuits against the state in the past four years. But Schamberg’s proposal – and the reaction to it from both parties – highlights an ongoing reality: Even with the political will, finding a funding fix is going to be complicated. 

New Hampshire has paid about the same default amount of money per student to schools for decades: between $3,000 and $4,000, adjusted each year for inflation. In the 2003-2004 school year, that baseline number was $3,390. In 2023, the number is $3,866. 

Public schools receive more than that $3,866 figure for many students. They get more for each student who qualifies for free or reduced price lunches, for each student with special education needs, for each English language learning student, and for other categories. For some students, that can bring the total state funding amount thousands of dollars over the default. 

But even with the additional targeted aid, the state funding does not generally come close to meeting the actual amount school districts spend per student; much of that cost is made up by local property taxes. Democrats have argued that the state is required by the New Hampshire Constitution to pay for more. Schamberg says his bill gets that done.

“As a society we have changed what we ask our schools to do, and how much these changes have cost,” Schamberg said at the hearing. Under current spending patterns, his bill would give each school around $9,000 per student, which he said would help meet those new cost burdens. 

Republican members of the House Education Committee questioned why the bill would be based on the statewide average spending per pupil, when some wealthy New Hampshire towns spend relatively lavishly. 

“I think we’re looking at the issue of Moultonborough, we’re looking at Waterville Valley – $45,000 per kid – we’re looking at Monroe, we’re looking at some of those towns which had the ability to raise those dollars easily, and the others which are not anywhere near that and so then you’re taking the average of these high and low,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican and the chairman of the House Education Committee.

Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican, had a similar objection. “The spending that a school spends and what they spend it on is determined at either school district town meeting or at the deliberative session and then the vote, right?” she said. “And it varies very differently between schools.”

Luneau has a different approach to the school funding question this year.  House Bill 529 would seek to help struggling cities and towns by creating two more funding categories, targeting schools whose property values are low and schools with high proportions of lower-income students. The money would be targeted, not applied across the board like Schamberg’s proposal, said Luneau, the bill’s sponsor.

And the approach would cost just under $100 million a year.

Luneau said his bill is not a comprehensive fix to the problem that has vexed the Legislature for three decades. But he argued it was a proposal that could pass. 

“I think at the end of the day, if there’s going to be an interest in having $100 million put towards cutting taxes, that it should be done in an equitable manner” rather than a flat-funded manner, Luneau said in an interview.

Neither of the school funding bills are necessarily destined for success, but Luneau says there is bipartisan precedent for his approach. In 2019, the Democratic-led House passed House Bill 709 with wide Republican support; the measure was added to the budget. That bill, Luneau argues, is similar in structure to his legislation this year. 

Luneau’s bill this year differs from the 2019 legislation in two key respects: It would spend more money per year – $95 million in the 2023 bill compared to about $65 million in 2019 – and it would continue the grants into the future indefinitely. The 2019 effort was a one-time, one-year proposal. 

That could clash against a Legislature interested in cutting spending and taxes and a governor who has long preferred one-time expenditures over ongoing obligations. 

Luneau said he would be willing to compromise and make his bill a one-time expense, if politically necessary, though he argued against it. “If that’s what we had to do to do it, then sure,” he said. “But I think what school districts and what taxpayers need more than anything is predictability and sustainability. And so, when you do this stuff on a one-time basis, it may feel good for one year, but I don’t know what the following year is going to look like.” 

But Schamberg says the ambitiousness of his bill is meant to be a wakeup call, pointing to school funding lawsuits that could result in Supreme Court orders that require a restructuring of New Hampshire’s funding formula. 

“Because the court system is eventually going to make a decision – someday, whether it’s in April … or maybe next fall.  But if they make a decision and it says ‘You will, the Legislature of New Hampshire, you will do this amount percentage,’ are we going to have the revenue?”