School funding is one of the most important issues facing New Hampshire and is emerging as the key issue in the fall campaign and for the next Legislature. Voters should know where the candidates stand.
Here is a brief overview of the issue and the key questions you can put to candidates. Attend a School Funding 101 forum to get the whole story.
The New Hampshire Constitution
The NH Constitution sets two core requirements for K-12 public education:
- The State has a duty to pay for the cost of a “constitutionally adequate education for every K-12 public school student;
- The taxes that the State uses to pay for this education must have a uniform rate across the state.
The Legislature has enacted comprehensive standards for an adequate education, but the amount of aid the State provides to meet these standards is woefully insufficient.
While the average annual per pupil cost is over $15,000 per year, the State’s main “adequacy grant” provides only $3,636 per year, with small additional grants for children who are low-income children, receive special education, or are English language learners. Some school districts receive “stabilization grants,” although these are being reduced. Even when all of these grants are added together, the State pays only about 32% of the cost of education in New Hampshire.
More than 60% of the cost of educating our children is paid by local property taxpayers at tax rates that are wildly disproportionate from town to town.
For example, in the 2015-2016 school year, the Rye School District spent $19,535 per pupil, while the total rate of state and local school property taxes in Rye was only $6.20. In Pittsfield, the per-pupil spending was $14,723, but the combined education tax rate was $18.00. This great disparity occurs because the equalized value of property in Rye is $3,311,717 per student, but in Pittsfield the equalized value per student is only $463,649.
Towns with a great deal of valuable property (“property wealthy”) can raise enough money to spend generously on their students, even while their tax rates remain low.
Because of the great disparities in property wealth from town to town, taxpayers in the property poor towns like Pittsfield pay much higher rates but are able to raise much less for their schools than districts with lake-front property, ski resorts, or very valuable coastline.
Taxpayers in property-poor towns make much greater financial sacrifices for their students, but they struggle to raise enough money to meet their schools’ basic needs.
In recent years, many of these school districts have been laying off teachers and other employees, delaying building maintenance, skimping on equipment, eliminating classes, and losing talented and experienced teachers to other districts which can afford to pay higher salaries.
This funding system discourages economic growth in many towns and cities across the state.
Why would a new business open in a town with high tax rates? And why wouldn’t the owner of an existing business in a property-poor town with high tax rates feel financially pressured to relocate?
The funding system also discourages young families from moving to school districts with high property taxes and struggling school systems.
And it prompts local officials to discourage the creation of housing for young families, because of the impact on school budgets of additional children.
Thus, the current school funding system hurts students, their parents, local homeowners and businesses and it works directly against the efforts to attract and keep young people, enlarge the work force, and encourage new businesses in all regions of the state.
A number of school districts are already in crisis, with many more to follow.
This problem is harming school budgets and pushing up school property tax rates in New Hampshire’s largest cities and countless towns in all regions of the state.
For more than a decade, the Legislature and NH’s governors have allowed this problem to get worse.
In fact, they have continued to downshift costs by reducing stabilization aid.
Questions for candidates
As the 2018 election season heats up, voters should we must raise the issue of school funding and property taxes and the positions of each of the three main candidates for governor and of everyone who is running for the NH House or Senate.
Here are sample questions you can ensure that candidates answer.
- What will you do to make sure that the State updates its adequacy grants to more realistic levels?
- What will you do to make school property tax rates more fair and equal across the state?
- As an immediate measure, would you support a moratorium on cuts to stabilization aid? Would you support restoring the amount that has been cut since 2015?
- If you are in favor of a constitutional amendment on school funding, what would such an amendment say and how would the Legislature be held accountable for supporting our public schools?