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N.H. lawmakers consider bill to modify academic requirements for public schools

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a proposal to modify public school standards, through a law that touches on decades of debates over how to improve school funding and student achievement.

The Republican-backed bill HB 1671 modifies the state definition of an “adequate education” to prioritize English, Science, Math, and Social Studies. It loosens requirements for other subjects, including foreign languages, arts, and computer science, directing school districts to integrate those subjects into “applied instruction.”

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Rick Ladd, of Haverhill, said the bill would help schools focus on subjects that many students are not mastering. He pointed to statewide assessments, which show declining proficiency in core subjects, particularly during the pandemic.

“We have restricted time in our schools for teaching those core content knowledge and skills that every child deserves and should have the opportunity to receive,” he told lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday.

The debate among lawmakers over the definition of an “adequate education” spans nearly three decades and has a direct impact on what educational expenses the state is obligated to help fund. The state Supreme Court weighed in on this in its landmark Claremont decisions in the 1990’s. But it’s facing another lawsuit now, brought by school districts that say the state is shirking its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education and forcing property-poor towns to shoulder more than their share of school costs.

It’s unclear what effect HB 1671 would have on future debates over the funding formula. This formula, though outdated, is the basis for what the state sends to schools to cover the cost of an adequate education.

John Tobin, an attorney who has represented schools in funding lawsuits against the state, called the bill a “quiet retreat” from what the state Supreme Court had laid out as an adequate education for each child.

“I see this as part of an effort to narrow the scope of the state’s responsibility,” he told NHPR.

The debate over HB 1671 also reveals a stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats over what could fix the widening achievement gaps between poor students and students of color and their wealthier peers, many of whom are white.

Education commissioner Frank Edelblut testified in support of the bill, calling it a “bold step” that would encourage collaboration among teachers and improve performance among students who aren’t reaching proficiency in reading and math.

And he rejected the notion that increasing funding for struggling schools would improve student achievement.

“To those that might argue that funding or the lack thereof is the driver, I can provide hours of evidence of massive increases in funding, well beyond inflation, that have not been effective,” he said.

Democratic Rep. David Luneau, of Hopkinton, an advocate for overhauling the state’s education funding formula, disagreed.

“I’m struggling to understand how changing this is going to close those opportunity gaps that we see across the state, which are very heavily tied to communities that skew towards lower social economic conditions.”

In addition to HB 1617, lawmakers are considering several bills this year directly related to school funding.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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