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Zip Codes Can Dramatically Limit Future for NH Students

Garry Rayno’s column today in InDepthNH and other papers makes the key point about the impact of insufficient state funding for public education in New Hampshire and provides important context:

Cora Huter, a senior at Berlin High School, hopes to have a career in nursing, but could be at a disadvantage when she applies to colleges.

Her high school does not have a chemistry teacher this year and Huter and other students are studying chemistry on-line through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, which provides on-line courses to many students in the state.

The new superintendent of Berlin schools, Julie King, said while the on-line course is fine, the students will not have laboratory experience in chemistry.

King replaced long-time superintendent Corinne Cascadden who stepped down this year.

Huter’s mother, Amy, was the principal of the Brown Elementary School at one time. The school board decided this year to close the last elementary school and move the students into the high/middle school facility built in 1919.

Berlin, like many North Country schools, has declining school enrollment, but has also lost $1 million in state education aid over the past three years after lawmakers decided to reduce stabilization grants by 4 percent a year.

Lawmakers touted the statewide reduction in student enrollment as one of the reasons to decrease state aid, but many property poor communities like Berlin depend on the money for their schools and now face an additional reduction in state aid unless a budget agreement is reached that returns stabilization grants to their original level, which is what lawmakers passed in the $13.3 million two-year state operating budget Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed.

The stark contrast between communities in crisis due to school funding and those with little difficulty raising the money to provide greater opportunities for their students was apparent at a public hearing last week before House and Senate budget writers, seeking to expose the budget veto’s effects on schools.

At the heart of the discussion was the reduction in stabilization aid.

Grant History

School districts were told in 2011, when the education funding formula was last changed, they would be held harmless, meaning they would receive at least as much state aid as they did the year before the formula changed.

The new formula did away with fiscal disparity aid, which provided additional money to property-poor school districts.

The new formula no longer required property-wealthy districts to send their excess statewide property tax collections to the state to help poorer schools.

The change in formula would have resulted in the state distributing $158 million less in state aid to communities meaning some of the poorest school districts would have suffered the greatest loss in state money, so the stabilization grants were created to soften the blow.

At the time the architects of the new formula, GOP Sens. Jim Rausch of Derry and Nancy Stiles of Hampton, said the grants would be sent to the school districts in perpetuity.

But in 2015, lawmakers decided to scale back the stabilization grants by 4 percent a year and remove a cap on how much growing school districts could receive in adequacy grants.

The changes helped districts like Dover, which successfully sued the state over the cap, Bedford and Windham whose enrollments were growing, but hurt the majority of districts who had declining student attendance.

The changes exacerbated a growing problem for property-poor communities like Berlin, Claremont, Pittsfield, Newport and Franklin. The state had already downshifted teacher retirement costs to local districts during the Great Recession and stopped municipal revenue sharing.

The changes exploded the property tax burden in communities that could least afford it and school budgets — the largest local expense — became battle grounds dividing communities.

Educational Opportunities

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that every student has a constitutional right to an “adequate education” and the state has an obligation to pay for it and later said the funding source had to be “proportional and reasonable,” i.e. not widely varying property tax rates.

Unlike Vermont, the Supreme Court never said education had to be equal across the state, only that it had to be adequate. Lawmakers and school districts have disagreed since the ruling what constitutes an adequate education and how much the state should pay for it.

The question is not partisan because both Democrats and Republicans have failed to abide by the court’s ruling and spent more time trying to pass constitutional amendments to remove court jurisdiction over education than solving the problem that currently is as bad as it was when the Claremont education lawsuit was filed, if not worse.

The disparity between property-wealthy school districts and the opportunities they provide their children and property-poor districts is immense.

Educational Atmosphere

Newport Interim Superintendent Brendan Minnihan told the legislative committee one-third of the staff left at the end of the school year, the biggest reason the low pay compared to what more property-rich districts pay.

School Board Chair Linda Wadensten said the school budget is the lowest it has ever been after closing a school, and cutting programs and student necessities like books.

“You can’t get nickels and dimes from a stone. We’ve raked over what a property-poor community can give,” she said. “We give every cent we can to educate our kids because they are our future.”

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier told of looking his elementary-school-aged grandson in the eyes as he took him to the high school facility built before Grenier’s father was born and wondered if that would be his legacy.

“The time will come when property-poor communities like Berlin will be totally unattractive (for business) investment,” he said. “Is this the legacy we want to leave in New Hampshire, that we take care of kids from rich communities, but if you come from property-poor towns, we throw you in the back of the bus?”


Huter believes her educational opportunities are less than a senior in a more property-wealthy community and wonders what that may mean for her chosen career.

The best and brightest will survive and prosper no matter where they come from, but the average student’s opportunity is more dependent on the zip code where he or she lives than ability under the current system.

But this is not an issue that will be settled in budget negotiations between Democratic leaders and Sununu, although the poorer communities certainly favor the education funding plan and increases in the vetoed budget rather than what the governor proposed the day of the hearing.

Fixing the education funding system will take years not months and may never happen.

Tax System

One person who testified last week, John Morison, Chairman and CEO of Hitchiner Manufacturing in Milford, urged lawmakers to look at overhauling the state’s tax system.

“Listening to the people here today, we have a revenue problem, a revenue distribution problem,” Morison said. “I strongly recommend you look for other forms of revenue to help solve these problems.”

Anyone attending last week’s hearing had to at least acknowledge there is a serious problem with state’s education funding system.

There are kids who will not have even adequate opportunities to excel academically because their communities lack the resources and they will not be able to compete for admission to better colleges and universities.

Unfortunate students are delegated to a cycle of poverty that has sometimes entrapped their families for generations just because of where they live.

The current education funding system is not fair or equitable, certainly not proportional, and many of the state’s children are paying the price.

Politicians tout the high quality of the state’s schools based on national test scores, but that sidesteps the problem.

If the state’s students are its future, the funding system needs to be overhauled now before the disparity grows larger and no one wants to open a business in Berlin, Claremont or Newport or any other chronically property-poor community.

The state’s future truly depends on its students — all of them.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

A big hurdle remains for Learn Everywhere

The following op-ed by Bill Duncan was published in the Concord Monitor on July 24, 2019.

We are at an interesting juncture in the debate over Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed Learn Everywhere program. The legislative committee charged with ensuring that proposed agency rules conform with the statutes they implement (that’s the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, JLCAR) has, by a party-line vote of 6-4, lodged a “preliminary objection” to the Learn Everywhere program in a letter listing many problems. Central to the committee’s concerns is the provision that New Hampshire high schools “shall” accept graduation credits created by private groups accredited by the State Board of Education (SBOE).

Normally, when JLCAR sends a proposed rule back with a preliminary objection, the agency makes the required changes and resubmits the rule to JLCAR for a virtually assured final approval. That does not seem likely in this case.


UL: “Opposition coalesces as ‘Learn Everywhere’ goes up for a vote Thursday”

A front page story in today’s Union Leader front page tees up tomorrow’s State Board of Education vote on Learn Everywhere, Commissioner Edelblut’s personal effort to begin the process of privatizing public education in New Hampshire.  Highlights: (more…)

Union Leader editorial parodies school funding proposals to arrive at school choice as the response to the ConVal decision

Today’s Union Leader school funding editorial opens with,

The latest court decision regarding education funding in New Hampshire presents either a great opportunity or a further slide in New Hampshire’s advantage over other states

The editorial proceeds on a twisted trail trying to debunk the whole notion established in the New Hampshire Constitution that the opportunity for an adequate education is a fundamental right of every child in the state.

The great opportunity, of course, is school choice.

If that’s actually the starting point for opponents of school funding fairness, it’s hard to imagine a consensus solution.


The House Finance Committee chair: the House education funding proposal is an important step toward responding to the ConVal decision

The Senate has sent its proposed budget back to the House with a major reduction in the House commitment to education funding.  That will get discussed and voted on it the House and probably sent to a committee of conference.

In the June 9 Concord Monitor, House Finance chair Mary Jane Wallner explains the context and rationale for the strong House support for increase education funding as a first step in implementing Judge Ruoff’s important decision: (more…)

Just before the SBOE vote, NH League of Women Voters issues a statement opposing the NHDOE Learn Everywhere proposal

If you are not yet alarmed about Commissioner Edelblut’s proposal to privatize public education in New Hampshire, here’s our background on his Learn Everywhere plan and here is great coverage by Reaching Higher NH.  The current version of the plan is here on page 345 of the board packet for the Thursday, June 13, SBOE meeting, where the board is expected to vote on the package. (more…)

UL’s Solomon: a great perspective on the Ruoff decision

The Union Leader delves further into the Ruoff decision on today’s front page.  Read the whole thing but here are some highlights:

If there’s one message that comes through loud and clear in the nearly 100-page ruling on education funding handed down late Wednesday by a Cheshire County Superior Court judge, it’s this: A child’s educational opportunity should not be determined by his or her ZIP code…..


Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff drops a bomb on Concord: the state’s support for public education is unconstitutional.

In backroom conversations, New Hampshire’s elected leadership have recognized for years that the adequacy formula determining state funding for public education is unconstitutional.  The Legislature had set the funding level unrealistically low – currently $3,636 plus some other targeted forms of aid – and just hoped to keep the issue in the background as long as possible.

The string ran out on that strategy this year as schools closed or dropped important courses and the NH School Funding Fairness Project led by Andy Volinsky, John Tobin and Doug Hall held 35 forums (and counting) around the state explaining the system and the damage it is doing to students, property poor communities and property taxpayers.  While the Fairness Project and hundreds of active supporters pursued a legislative remedy, ConVal and 3 other school districts went to court in March to challenge the formula.

Judge Ruoff issued his 98 page opinion yesterday.  And it was sweeping.  Some key quotes: (more…)

Portsmouth Herald: “We do have an education funding problem, which is a drag on our economy, particularly in rural areas, and it’s getting worse.”

The Herald weighed in editorially on the school funding issue after an editorial board visit by Executive Councilor and lead Claremont case attorney Andy Volinsky:

The fight over education funding in New Hampshire has, at least for now, moved from courts of law to the court of public opinion.

The lead lawyers in the landmark 1997 Claremont II education funding lawsuit, which affirmed New Hampshire’s constitutional duty to provide every K-12 student an “adequate” public education, acknowledge that despite favorable rulings from the state Supreme Court, disparities in educational opportunities have not gotten better over the past 20 years. In fact, they have gotten worse.


NHPR to hold a education funding forum, broadcast live at 7:00PM, April 30

The NHPR series “Adequate: How A State Decides The Value of Public Education” has provided important insights into education funding in New Hampshire and the impact inadequate state support for its schools has had on our communities.  The series will culminate next Tuesday with a forum to be held at NHPR headquarters in Concord.   Here are the details.  You can register here to attend the forum live in NHPR’s Studio D.

Laura Knoy is host a great panel:

  • John J. Freeman—Superintendent of Schools, Pittsfield School District
  • Our own John Tobin —One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the landmark Claremont education case against the state, and a leader in the current NH School Funding Fairness Project
  • Rick Ladd—Republican state representative from Haverhill; former chair of the Education Committee, N.H. House of Representatives
  • Jessica Huizenga—Superintendent of Schools, Milford School District

Don’t miss it!