Viewpoint: A tug-of-war over students and taxes

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/6/2022 9:26:23 AM
Modified: 1/6/2022 9:25:47 AM

In March 2019, the ConVal School District sued the State of New Hampshire over its ever-decreasing funding. This is the sixth time the state has been sued for avoiding its constitutional mandate to fund an adequate education.

The first lawsuit was in 1993. The New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down state efforts to limit or decrease public school funding in Claremont I, II and III, the 2006 Londonderry, and 2016 Dover cases.

“With recent tweaks to the education funding formula and reductions in funding, many say that towns are at a breaking point. Teacher layoffs, cuts in programming, and even the threat of school closures have pushed the issue...”  (Reaching Higher NH, Jan. 7, 2019 “The Big Question for 2019: How Will We Pay for Our Schools?”). And that was three years ago, before COVID. Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Sununu has taken the most-radical approach yet to this decades-long funding deficit. Rather than increase state education funding, as the court instructed, the governor gave large businesses four tax cuts. Meanwhile, he appointed a person with no educational credentials to lead the state’s Department of Education.

Commissioner Frank Edelblut has a master’s degree in divinity and has diverted public funding to non-public schools, mostly religious. When New Hampshire schools faced the pandemic crisis, the commissioner appointed people without experience in school administration to write “guidelines” that came out too late to be of any use to any boards or administrators. The message from the state was clear – you are on your own.

If it weren’t for the financial help from federal relief funds, no district could have survived. But the Department of Education delayed those funds to public schools as long as possible by placing bureaucratic hurdles for district business managers. Meanwhile, Edelblut swiftly sent federal support to non-public schools, barely trying to conceal his disdain for the public school system established by our state’s founders, which has been the great equalizer for Americans since our nation began.  

When thousands of residents signed in against the 2021 Republican EFA voucher bill, the Republican-led legislature hid it in the budget. That let them and the governor establish the most-aggressive voucher program in the United States without further public scrutiny. These “Education Freedom Accounts” have loose limits on eligibility, no government oversight on how taxpayer-funded vouchers are spent and no spending cap. In other states, voucher programs have been rife with fraud. Public school districts, on the other hand, are audited every year and spending is controlled by local taxpayers. 

Lack of voucher spending controls became apparent quickly. Edelblut estimated $130,000 for budgeting purposes; the actual cost is now projected at over $7 million, with 10% going to a tiny, unsupervised New Hampshire agency and its Florida financial firm. Why did the budget increase? A Koch-supported lobbying group, Americans for Prosperity, mailed postcards and even canvassed door-to-door to encourage parents to sign up.

Contrary to statements from EFA proponents, such as state Sen. Denise Ricciardi, taxpayers will bear the burden of vouchers. Wealthy communities may expand funding to support all types of schools, but poor towns will have to close schools. New Hampshire now has one of the best public school systems in the nation, but this cannot continue if the state tries to fund ever more schools. Because vouchers are too low to pay most private school tuition, only wealthy families get to choose which school their child attends. If public schools close in poor and rural towns, many children will need to learn remotely, an option that has proven deficient during the forced experiment of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, thousands of educators and school employees will lose jobs. New Hampshire taxpayers will foot the bill for students’ out-of-state boarding schools and for-profit online schools. In the current session, 175 proposed bills plus 30 retained bills pertain to education, most further eroding communities’ public schools. I differ from Free Staters and the Liberty Caucus promoting these bills. I believe that community is important, and we are stronger when we invest our time and treasure in our community, together. 

Our country and communities are at a crossroads. As citizens, we must scrutinize what our governing bodies are deciding in our names. When I questioned Ricciardi about her position on a few of the worst pending bills, I did not receive an answer. 

Through its lawsuit, ConVal has stood up and required the state to pay its constitutional duty to public schools, because local property taxpayers cannot continue to shoulder this unfair system. Sununu’s administration supports vouchers, even though they will cost more, and will fail to provide many children a competitive education for a global economy.

Janine Lesser is a Peterborough representative to the ConVal School Board. She is not writing on behalf of the board.


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