April 13, 2024
Funds

Democrats consider new school funding approaches, with differing opinions | News


House Democrats are advocating for an ambitious bill to change how New Hampshire funds its schools. But not all school funding advocates are supporting it.

Sponsored by Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, House Bill 1586 proposes allocating state money to send to schools based on the goal of boosting the school’s academic performance. The bill would direct the state to determine a “statewide public education opportunity goal” – an overall performance target that all schools in the state would need to collectively meet. Funding would then be given to each school based on what the state determines is needed in order for the school to meet that goal.

The complex, 26-page bill echoes previous efforts by Luneau and stems from the conclusions of a 2020 state commission designed to examine New Hampshire’s school funding approach. That commission found that if schools are funded with an aim to boost their outputs, more students will succeed across the state.

“Our average performing student in New Hampshire performs among the best in the country, but … it’s just not happening in all of our school districts,” he said. “And that’s where right-sizing these budgets really can come in to make sure districts have the budgets they need to be able to educate their students to a statewide outcome.”

The state uses a multi-tiered approach that starts with the statewide property tax; if school districts can’t raise enough money through that tax to pay for their schools, they receive per-pupil adequacy funding from the state; and if that adequacy funding is still not enough, the towns make up the difference with more property taxes. State funding is distributed based in part on property values and demographics, such as the number of free and reduced-price lunch students in the district.

Luneau’s bill would change that approach by allocating money based on what each district needs to raise its performance.

The approach would use three outputs to determine which schools are neediest: assessment scores, graduation rates, and attendance rates, according to the bill. Then, to determine how much money each school would need, the Legislature would project the total spending that school would require “to achieve the statewide public education opportunity goal.” Those funding amounts would vary by school district depending on factors including geographical salary differences, student needs, district size, and population density.

To keep the price tag down the bill uses targeted aid; Luneau said no new state revenue streams are needed to make it work.

The bill is co-sponsored by Democrats including Reps. Mel Myler, the former chairman of the House Education Committee, and Richard Ames, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But one longtime advocate, Andru Volinsky, is opposed. Volinsky, a former executive councilor who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2020, was an attorney for the plaintiffs in the two Claremont lawsuits, in which the New Hampshire Supreme Court first set a mandate for the state to fund an adequate education.

“Although I respect the sponsors of this bill, their position to me is heartbreaking, because I think the bill violates the New Hampshire Constitution, as it was described and explained in the Claremont and Londonderry decisions,” said Volinsky, referring to a 2008 Supreme Court decision that followed the Claremont rulings.

Volinsky argues the approach does not adhere to the Supreme Court’s conclusions in the Claremont II case, in which the court laid out a series of requirements for school funding. The state must clearly define an “adequate education”; must determine the cost of funding it; must use state funding to do so; must not shift the cost of that adequate education to cities or towns; must apply any tax in a uniform way; and must establish accountability.

To Volinsky, the bill fails the first test, defining an adequate education, because it does not specify what must be funded in order for each school to meet its output target. That lack of clarity, he argued, means the Legislature could not have a reliable metric to keep its funding model on track.

“It tells you the scores that must be achieved without identifying the components in those successful schools that make them successful,” he said. “And so without identifying the components, you can’t fairly and objectively cost out adequacy.”

The House Education Committee dove deeper into Luneau’s bill Thursday in a subcommittee work session.

The bill comes as other state Democrats have proposed sweeping funding bills to respond to a superior court ruling in November that found that the state is funding schools at too low a level and should provide at least $7,360.01 per student.

Other Democratic-led bills heard Wednesday were House Bill 1583, which would raise the base adequacy amount per student from $4,100 to $10,000, and House Bill 1686, which would dramatically increase the amount of state aid that goes to schools for children who need special education – from $2,100 per student to $27,000 per student. Both bills would require major increases to the state’s Education Trust Fund, which currently spends about $1 billion per year on school funding.

Senate Republicans have already thrown water on any attempts to dramatically transform the amount New Hampshire funds its schools this year. At a press conference to kick off the new year, Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, dismissed the Rockingham County Superior Court ruling as judicial overreach and said his caucus would not pass additional funding legislation and would await a final Supreme Court ruling.

“It would lead us to an income tax if we continue with differentiated aid,” Bradley said, speaking of the judge’s order. “We have met our responsibility to help towns, help schools, help counties, lower property taxes, and we’ll continue to do that. But the only way we do it is by generating the kind of surpluses that come from a strong economy.”



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