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Column: NH education funding responses to pandemic

To the Valley News
Published: 4/16/2021 10:10:07 PM
Modified: 4/16/2021 10:10:03 PM

It has been almost a full year since New Hampshire schools shifted to remote instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. New Hampshire educators, parents and students earned national recognition for how well they adapted to this unprecedented disruption. But even as many students adjusted well to remote instruction, others suffered. We were provided more evidence of something we already knew: Every child learns differently.

Since the fall, most New Hampshire schools have come back for in-person instruction, at least several days each week. There are safety precautions in place, such as social distancing, masks and frequent hand-washing. It has been a most unusual year and presented some unusual challenges.

At the Statehouse, we don’t interfere in the day-to-day operations of our schools. But the disruption caused by COVID-19 has created some challenges that the Legislature needs to address, including several changes to our school funding formula.

There is a one-year lag built into the formula we use to set state education funding to local school districts. In order to give local school boards and voters time to build state funding into their local school budgets, the amount of state aid is based on the attendance from the previous fall. As a result, the number of students in a school as of September 2020 will determine how much money each school district receives for the 2021-22 academic year.

In most years, this lag actually benefits local school districts, given the rate at which New Hampshire’s school-aged population is declining. But this year saw an unusually high drop in school district attendance. With some school districts keeping their buildings closed, most parents chose nonpublic or home-school options than in a normal year. Because there were fewer students in class in September, school districts would receive less state education aid for next year.

Another challenge stems from the free and reduced lunch program. In order to ensure that all students had access to nutritious meals, whether or not they were attending school in person, federal officials waived the requirement that families sign up for the program.

As a result, fewer families have signed up under the program than are eligible. Students are being fed, and that’s wonderful, but an unintended consequence of this waiver is that fewer families have signed up. And many state and federal education programs are targeted to school districts with a higher percentage of families receiving free and reduced lunch.

The problem is that these dips in enrollment will reverse themselves next year. Students who were not in school last fall will be back next fall. Families that did not sign up for free and reduced lunch will still be eligible. Taken together, these two temporary drops in enrollment would result in $45 million less going to local school districts unless the Legislature acts.

Fortunately, we can respond to these challenges. Sen. Erin Hennessey is drafting legislation that would allow school districts to submit their 2019 enrollment and free and reduced lunch statistics. This would result in a school funding formula that more accurately represents the school populations we expect next year. Sen. Regina Birdsell has introduced a bill, SB 82, to address a similar lag in funding for full-day kindergarten programs. This would provide an additional $1.9 million for eight kindergarten programs that expanded to full days in 2020 and 2021. The Senate Finance Committee has already given its unanimous approval to SB 82.

Education funding in New Hampshire is tied to students. Because of the unique challenges of COVID-19, our education funding formula was going to be artificially low, leaving school districts and, ultimately, local taxpayers to pay for students that the formula doesn’t think are there. We’re not going to let COVID-19 throw a wrench into the gears of our school funding system. We have a responsibility to respond to these unique times and ensure that schools receive state funding that matches the number of students they are going to educate next year.

Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, represents District 8 in the New Hampshire Senate and chairs the Senate Education Committee.

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