Column: New Hampshire can fix how it pays for education

For the Valley News
Published: 10/20/2022 12:21:32 PM
Modified: 10/20/2022 12:21:30 PM

When I speak with people on the campaign trail, one of the most frequent concerns I hear about is public education funding. How we fund public education in New Hampshire has put an incredible tax burden on local property owners, created inequities among school districts and caused unnecessary division among communities. If we don’t resolve the funding issue, the outcomes will become worse each passing year.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, New Hampshire is last in the nation in funding that a state contributes towards public education. Estimates show that the state contributes 28% of the cost while local taxpayers pay 72%. Because assessed valuation varies from community to community, funding public education becomes a much heavier burden for municipalities that are property poor. Communities with lower assessed valuations have higher tax rates.

Beyond the issue of whether a municipality is property rich or poor, there is also the economic factor. Mill-based cities and towns experienced economic downturns when manufacturers either closed or relocated. Others became prosperous with the growth of technology, health care and tourism industries. These transitions occur over decades and continue to evolve with shifts in the economy and changes in median income. In either case, the result is an increased or decreased financial ability to pay for public education at the municipal level. Additionally, there is also the individual taxpayer’s ability to pay property taxes. Even in wealthier communities, there are property owners who are on limited incomes, making it difficult to absorb the reliance on funding public education at the local level.

Municipal variations in property wealth and economic prosperity create disparities among communities regarding their ability to adequately fund public education. Property poor cities and towns and those with lower median incomes have fewer financial resources to fund their schools, often resulting in lower paid staff, reduced programming and deferred building maintenance. Students living in wealthier municipalities have access to well-funded schools that can afford to pay staff higher wages, offer robust programming and better maintained infrastructure. Per the education policy organization Reaching Higher, there is a 59% disparity in the starting salary of teachers between the state’s highest and lowest paying school districts.

Such inequities create division in property poor, less wealthy municipalities. Too often, local taxpayers want to support public education, but can’t afford to pay higher property taxes without the risk of losing their homes. Additionally, school districts are separate from municipal government in most communities. Given both entities draw from the same local taxpayers, tension often exists when deciding what should be funded. For example, a major school renovation project may delay needed road improvements.

We are seeing all these issues play out in Senate District 8 and throughout the state. Some school districts are unable to fill vacancies or are losing their teachers to other districts that can pay higher wages. In other cases, school districts have risked losing accreditation due to deferred maintenance. School boards are forced to choose between cutting staff or reducing programming.

In such circumstances, students lose and so do their communities. 

Rather than resolving the issue of properly funding public education, the state has side-stepped it by introducing Education Freedom Accounts (EFA). This effort, which is over budget, has cost taxpayers $14.7 million dollars, diverting funds from public education to private, religious and home-based schools. As a result, disparities continue to deepen among public school districts, affecting student outcomes, taxpayers and economic growth.

The good news is that there are solutions to improve our current funding model. Ideas to be considered include a more equitable partnership in state and local funding, an equalized tax rate and state-funded special education services. However, we need state elected officials who are committed to resolving public education funding before introducing alternatives such as EFAs. School choice cannot come at the sacrifice of public education, and we must elect officials who are committed to fulfilling New Hampshire’s constitutional responsibility that every student, regardless of Zip code, has access to a quality education.

Charlene Lovett is the former mayor of Claremont and a former Claremont School Board member. She is the Democratic candidate for Senate District 8.

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