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N.H. Lawmakers Grapple Anew Over An Old Issue: Funding Education

Christopher Sessums via Flickr CC

The fraught topic of education funding is again before lawmakers as two bills seek to eliminate a cap aid to local schools that was imposed in 2011. The bills hope to head off a possible lawsuit from school districts that have missed out on millions of dollars because of that cap. 

The push for change has bipartisan support, even though it could result in less funding for many schools.

Republican David Bates represents one of the fastest growing school districts in the state, Windham. He says if you’re the administrator of a fast-growing school or one that suddenly has more poor students, or more English language learners...

"…then you’re just out of luck. Because the current law caps any increases to 108% of what your received in the previous fiscal year. That’s clearly unfair. That’s arguably unconstitutional and it’s just plain wrong."

Bates has entered a bill that has one goal: "To kill the cap that we have on education funding."

That would mean the state would have to spend more money on these fast growing-schools – by one estimate, this year alone that would cost the state $11 million dollars.

Bates proposes paying for that increase by changing what are known as stabilization grants, including a 4 and a half percent cut across the board. These grants hold funding steady in districts that are losing students.

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

"We’re not talking about 4.6% of their entire education grant, we’re talking about a 4.6% cut in the extra money they’re getting over and above what the formula says they’re entitled to."

Doling out that extra money combined with a cap on funding growth leads to an odd situation: districts with shrinking enrollment – which include most of the state’s schools – end up keeping their funding flat, while at the same time, growing districts see their funding cut off because of the cap.

Democrat Patty Lovejoy from Stratham says only 14 towns get what they’re supposed to, another 15 get less, and the rest.

"Everybody else, gets more than what they’re supposed to."

Those towns, like Plymouth, Littleton, Claremont, are often in the North and West of the state, while towns taking the hit are in the more populous, and more densely represented in the legislature, the Southern tier.

She says the state is mis-allocating $158 million every year, and argues this makes a mockery of the state’s funding formula.

"We’ll keep telling everybody, we have adequacy, and then we completely ignore it and basically give everybody what they used to get," Lovejoy says.

While it should be easy to get the education establishment on board with giving some schools more money, the call to cut the stabilization grants could be trickier. Especially since, as Mark Joyce of the School Administrators Association points out, the grants were created because a huge number of schools were going to take a hit under the last school funding tweak.

"The law change never would have passed, because it virtually impacted 75% of the state’s population negatively, and if you were to suddenly remove it all, you’d have a great deal of hardship," he says.

Joyce wants the poorest schools, those with greater than 50 percent of their students receiving free and reduced lunch, to be exempted from this cut. A similar proposal working its way through the Senate has that provision built in.

Both bills have a broad array of supporters, from both parties, largely from some of those fast growing districts that are hit hardest by the funding cap. But Republican David Hess, a veteran of education funding battles, did come to the committee with words of caution.

"Education funding is all about money," he says.

Hess says when it comes to getting the votes to pass a bill like this, it’s a battle of the spreadsheets.

Sam Evans-Brown is NHPR's Environment and Education reporter.

"Everybody gets the spreadsheet out and looks. Is my town going to get more money if we change the law, or is it going to get less money. If it gets more money, the reps tend to vote for the bill."

If too many towns get less, Hess thinks the bill is doomed, whether it’s a good idea or not.

The bill’s sponsors say they can only hope to pitch this as a question of fairness.

And it doesn’t hurt when they mention that a number of school districts – such as Dover which has lost more than $7 million dollars because of this formula – have been threatening to sue the state unless there’s a change.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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