Commentary: Fair school funding must be part of state budget

April 30, 2021 6:10 am
Students sit at their desks while wearing masks

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock “Coping through COVID-19” series continues Wednesday with a conversation about returning to school. (Getty Images)

It’s spring again in New Hampshire, a time for blooming daffodils, filling potholes, and passing laws.

As the weather has warmed, there has been a lot of discussion about the $90 million state education funding hole our public schools face in the coming year. That hole represents a loss of state aid to districts and is caused by pandemic-related changes in enrollment and free and reduced-priced school lunch applications, as well as the expiration of additional aid and fiscal capacity disparity aid for higher-need districts.

This hole is alarming, heartbreaking, and lifechanging. If nothing is done to prevent the shortfall, thousands of students and educators will feel the impact of further devastating cuts in their classrooms, and families across New Hampshire will watch their local property tax bills increase in order to fund a bare minimum education.

For those who’ve been following the school funding debate for some time now, the problem is all too familiar. What’s worse, $90 million is merely a pothole. On the long and bumpy school funding road, a much larger sinkhole lurks around the corner.

The problem in this budget is $90 million deep, but New Hampshire has long fallen hundreds of millions of dollars short of its constitutional and moral school funding obligations. Solving the problem at hand is urgent and necessary; the long-lasting impact of giving today’s young people a better funded school and today’s property taxpayers a fairer bill cannot be understated.

But, recasting the system as a whole, so that all future Granite State families have a fair shot, is long overdue. This issue is not confronted solely by Claremont or ConVal. This is not an issue limited to one town or one school district. This is a New Hampshire issue.

Students across this state see their worlds constantly shift as school budgets are slashed year after year, cutting favorite teachers, needed classes, career development programs, and more. Parents struggle to give their kids a fair shot at a future while needed school services, such as teaching aides and therapists, are threatened by lack of funds.

Senior citizens who worked hard to retire see their property taxes escalate each year, eating more and more of their fixed income. Young adults are struggling to build a life while reconciling stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs caused, in part, by rising property taxes. The school funding and property tax problems touch all of us, inaction harms all of us, and a more equitable system will create a better New Hampshire for all of us.

Earlier this month the budget baton was handed to the Senate and its leg of the relay is well underway. Many education and tax issues have been debated this season and many share one fundamental problem: for too long New Hampshire has up-charged its property owners, while shortchanging its future.

The Senate has already taken modest action in passing Senate Bill 135, which offers a remedy to the funding shortfalls caused by pandemic-related enrollment and school lunch changes. This legislation closes the $90 million hole about halfway, but further action is needed to fund our schools and aid our communities. This fall will bring a return to school following an academic year like no other. At present, that return looks to be shadowed by budget cuts necessitated by the funding shortfall.

Other bills and amendments proposed earlier this session would have guaranteed schools no less in state aid in each of the next two years than they receive in the current one, protecting against further pandemic upheaval and the expiration of current innovations to target aid where it’s needed most.

We strongly urge the Senate to include similar provisions in its upcoming budget. The work for a more just school funding and property-tax system will not end when this budget is signed. However, decisive action on this issue in the Senate is a crucial first step to greater equity for all Granite Staters.

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Jeff McLynch
Jeff McLynch

Jeff McLynch is the project director of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, where he manages the organization’s daily operations and oversees its policy development, communications, and public engagement efforts. Among his prior positions, Jeff was the director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education, the executive director of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, the state policy director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the deputy director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, and a member of the professional staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means. He holds a master's of Public Policy from Georgetown University.