Here’s what the state budget means for education funding

  • The New Hampshire State Senate started the legislative season at Representative Hall in the State House on May 13, 2021. Wrapped in the budget bill they voted on is several education-related proposals. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 6/24/2021 1:01:34 PM

Funding for education looms large in every state budget discussion, and this year New Hampshire’s is no exception.

If passed, the proposed $13.5 billion, two-year spending budget will have some indelible marks on the state’s schools and education system

Among the provision in the budget are a sweeping plan for school vouchers, a change to the calculation of education funding, a reduction in statewide education property tax and a gag rule on teaching ‘divisive concepts.’

The budget is expected to be voted on in the House and Senate Thursday. Here’s a look at how it could impact education:

School voucher program

Just before passing the budget, the New Hampshire Senate’s finance committee voted to add a school voucher program amendment that would allow New Hampshire families to use per-pupil state funding to attend private school or homeschool. These “education freedom accounts,” which have been widely debated in New Hampshire for years, mean that if a child leaves a public school, the adequacy aid money – about $4,500 – follows the child to their chosen private or home school. There was no debate when House lawmakers agreed to the Senate’s addition Monday.

Republican legislators who support school vouchers say they give low-income New Hampshire families more choices for their children’s education, as the money could help pay private school tuition some families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Opponents say school vouchers hurt public schools by taking away key funding they need to support their students. An ongoing lawsuit waged by the Contoocook Valley School District and 15 others argues that $4,500 per pupil is too little for an adequate education in the first place, and the amount should be closer to $10,000 for public schools to be successful.

Bow-Dunbarton superintendent Dean Cascadden said he is “very very” concerned about the impact of the school voucher program on public school districts like his own.

“I am concerned about the money going to an individual student instead of going through a public school, supervised by an elected school board,” Cascadden said. “It’s a very concerning piece of legislation and having no ability to comment on it because it’s tucked into the budget bill doesn’t seem right.”

Changes to funding formula may provide relief

Another budget amendment promises to offer some financial relief to public schools that saw an enrollment drop due to COVID-19, by changing the formula for calculating state aid.

New Hampshire public schools saw a 5% decrease in student enrollment last fall as parents opted to switch their children to private or home school due to the pandemic. Since per-pupil “adequacy aid” is calculated based on enrollment numbers from the year before, 2020 numbers could cause school districts to lose millions of dollars, even if the students end up returning in the fall.

The solution added as an amendment to the state budget, requires the NH Department of Education to compare a district’s average daily membership numbers from both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and use the larger number to calculate differential aid for school year 2021-22.

The amendment also includes $17.5 million in additional aid for schools as part of the funding formula, calculated based on percentage of students who qualify for Free & Reduced Lunch.

“This solidifies that our districts that saw a decrease in average daily membership because of the pandemic will be held harmless in their payment for fiscal year 2022,” said Sen. Erin Hennessey, a Lebanon Republican, during Senate deliberations May 26. “I am very excited to include the $17.5 million per year for our schools who are struggling the most.”

Property tax rate reduced

The budget also includes an amendment to cut the statewide education property tax rate by $100 million, something Republican legislator proponents say will provide tax relief to homeowners.

“I am proud of this budget. It works for all of New Hampshire by prioritizing our most vulnerable populations and providing relief to every New Hampshire taxpayer,” Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, said Thursday.

Critics say the SWEPT reduction will have a negative impact on public school funding in the Granite State where 63.7% of education funding comes from local property taxpayers. Education advocates like the NH School Funding Fairness Project say reducing the tax rate benefits property-rich towns and hurts property-poor towns.

“This harmful measure delivers unnecessary state funding for our most property-rich towns, leaving our poorest school districts, who are already struggling with high property tax rates, to take additional cuts in state education funding,” said Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat.

The school funding formula has been a decades-long debate in New Hampshire, and the subject of extensive scrutiny by the Commission to Study School Funding, established by the Legislature in 2019. A report released by the commission in 2020 shows the current funding system creates inequity, as the “property rich” towns with wealthy local tax bases and high property values can generously fund their public schools, while the “property poor” towns without a deep tax base struggle to provide even basic funding.

‘Divisive concepts’

The budget’s “divisive concepts” amendment could have a significant impact on education. The amendment seeks to ban discussion of “divisive concepts” in schools, a provision that takes aim at critical race theory and echoes an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump that was rescinded by President Joe Biden this year. The Senate version, pitched as an effort to strengthen anti-discrimination laws, would prohibit teaching children that they’re inferior, racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of their race, gender or other characteristics.

Educators have said it restricts freedom of speech, and will impede schools from teaching about many aspects of civics and history, including systemic racism and unconscious bias. The proposed law is now housed under the umbrella of the state’s Human Rights Commission, meaning state residents who feel their schools are out of compliance would have a powerful avenue for filing a complaint, which could result in damages paid.

Cascadden said his issue with the bill is its restriction on what’s discussed in classrooms.

“It’s not as much what the bill says itself but the chilling effect it could have on public education,” Cascadden said. “Education is about examining issues, education is about examining our past history. We do need to talk about race with people, we do need to talk about unconscious bias. These are all very important parts of our history we need to look at and say, ‘what are we going to do moving forward?’”

The version of the state budget that has been approved by House and Senate negotiators will proceed to Sunu nu’s desk.

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