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NH Taxpayers Now Spending $20k per Pupil on K-12 Education

Granite State taxpayers have broken the $20,000 barrier on school spending, even as K-12 academic performance remains flat and school enrollment declines.

“Last week, the New Hampshire Department of Education released its newest cost per pupil data for the 2022-2023 school year,” the department said in a press release. “The new statewide average operating cost per pupil of $20,323 is a 4.8 percent increase from last year’s average cost per pupil of $19,400. Total expenditures for the 2022-2023 school year were more than $3.8 billion in New Hampshire.”

To put the $20,323 in perspective, tuition to attend Bishop Guertin High School, a highly-ranked private Catholic school in Nashua, is $16,400. Mount Royal Academy is the highest-ranked Catholic school in the state. High school tuition is $10,700.

New Hampshire also spends far more per pupil than most of the nation. Across the U.S., the average cost per pupil is shy of $14,295, putting New Hampshire in the top 10 nationally for education spending. And as state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut told NHJournal, taxpayer spending on public schools has been soaring for more than a decade.

“The statewide average for New Hampshire’s cost per pupil has increased by nearly 87 percent since 2000 when it cost less than $11,000 per student. During this same time frame, public school enrollment has dropped by about 20 percent statewide,” Edelblut said.

According to Edelblut, student enrollment numbers in the Granite State have dropped from 207,684 in 2002 to 165,095 in 2023. That’s a decrease of 42,589 public school students, or about a 20.5 percent decline during the past 21 years.

Despite the massive increase in spending, Granite State students are struggling on achievement tests like the SAT. House Education Committee vice chair Rep. Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro) said it’s time to pay attention to the poor return on investment.

“It’s pretty evident that over probably a couple of decades, spending is going up, and achievement scores are pretty much flat,” Cordelli said.

New Hampshire’s 2023 SAT scores dropped off slightly again. The junior class scored 35 percent proficient in math compared to 37 percent in 2022 and 42 percent in 2021. Students also lost ground on reading proficiency in 2023, with 60 percent proficiency compared to 61 percent proficiency in 2022 and 63 percent proficiency in 2021.

Edelblut said the increasing cost per pupil is partly due to increasing costs, and partly due to the steady drop in the number of students. 

“While we have and will continue to work to expand resources for all students, it is clear that we are in a challenging environment of escalating costs and decreasing student enrollment,” Edelblut said. 

Some school districts manage to come in under the new average, with Manchester at $16,636, Nashua spending $18,107, and Bedford at $17,418. Concord is spending $22,190 per pupil, and New Hampshire’s highest cost per pupil is New Castle at $41,754, a little more than the $41,650 tuition at The Derryfield School, an exclusive private day school in Manchester.

The record spending for public school students comes as the legislature is being pressed to find a way to change the way public education is funded. New Hampshire relies largely on local property taxes to fund public education, with the state sending an adequacy grant to districts that average $4,100 per pupil.

The district responsible for New Hampshire’s current school funding scheme thanks to lawsuits in the 1980s and 1990s, Claremont, is spending almost $22,000 per pupil. The Contoocook Valley Regional School District, behind a lawsuit that could change New Hampshire’s funding system again, is spending more than $25,000 per pupil.

The recent decision in the ConVal lawsuit has the state under court order to increase the adequacy aid grant to at least $7,300. Cordelli said that increase puts New Hampshire on the path to an income tax. The ConVal decision is stayed as the state appeals to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, giving the legislature time to find another funding plan.

Parents and homeowners frustrated with high property taxes and poor achievement are going to demand changes, Cordelli said.

“At some point, the public is going to become aware, and something is going to happen,” Cordelli said.

Parents are already finding lower cost, and sometimes better quality, opportunities outside the public school system. Kate Baker Demers, executive director of Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, said the average Education Freedom Account grant in New Hampshire is $5,255, about a quarter of the new cost per pupil for public school students.

“So, if a parent taxpayer is concerned about the high spending and cost, they could choose an EFA and save the state $14,745 per child. Which is, what, the amount that other states spend in total?” Baker Demers said.

This school year, EFA enrollment went up 20 percent to 4,211 students in New Hampshire. Of that total, 1,577 are new to the program. Taxpayers are now paying a little more than $22 million for EFA grants.

NH Families Continue Using EFAs to Flee Failing Public Schools

Manchester mom Saverna Ahmad knew her children needed a lot more than what they were getting at their public high schools, but she didn’t have a lot of options.

“At other schools, my kids had to go with the pace. They were bored,” she said.

Manchester’s school district is struggling to educate all students, whether they need advanced courses or remedial help. In some cases, the district is failing. 

When the New Hampshire Department of Education released the mandated list of Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools — the lowest-performing five percent of all schools in the state receiving Title I, Part A funds — three of these failing schools are in Manchester: Beech Street School, Henry Wilson Elementary School, and Parker-Varney School.

The state DOE has identified 19 schools across New Hampshire as Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools, including high schools with a four-year graduation rate of less than 67 percent. Those schools are now eligible for a share of $3.7 million in additional federal funding.

“To help aid with continued progress, the New Hampshire Department of Education will offer ongoing reviews, technical assistance, and monitoring to support each CSI school with its improvement efforts,” said Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

In Manchester, the Middle School at Parkside, Southside Middle School, and Manchester West High School are all in the Department of Education’s Targeted Support and Improvement plan.

But until recently, working parents like Ahmad had limited options if their children were attending failing schools like these. Both her children, now teens, are gifted and ready for advanced classes that are unavailable in Manchester’s school district. In fact, the only solution her son’s teachers could come up with was to simply graduate him after his sophomore year in high school and get him into college.

“I don’t want him to go to college at 17,” she said. “As a mom, I don’t think he’s ready to graduate.”

Ahmad knew there were schools in and around Manchester that could offer her son and daughter the education they needed, but she couldn’t afford them. Private school tuition was simply out of reach until Ahmad learned about the Education Freedom Account program.

“I didn’t know this kind of thing existed until Shalimar (Encarnacion, with the Children Scholarship Fund NH) reached out, and now I’m an ambassador,” she said.

New Hampshire’s EFA program awards need-based grants to families they can use to pay for tutoring, necessary educational hardware, extracurricular classes, private school tuition, and home school supplies. For Ahmad and her children, it meant a lifeline to opportunity.

“Coming from a salary where you don’t have much, it allows us to give the kids a break, and they can grow and enjoy their education,” she said. “As a mom, it makes me feel like the kids are where they need to be.”

It may not take a mathematical genius to understand that as Manchester’s public schools continue to fail students, more families like Ahmad’s are going to seek another solution. This year, EFA enrollment went up 20 percent to 4,211 students. Of that total, 1,577 students are new to the program. 

“It has been three years since the launch of New Hampshire’s successful Education Freedom Account program, and it is apparent that New Hampshire families are taking advantage of this tremendous opportunity that provides them with different options and significant flexibility for learning,” Edelblut said.

But EFA’s popularity is a problem for state Democrats and their teacher union allies. Meg Tuttle, president of the New Hampshire NEA, wants families in public schools to stay put.

“Taxpayer funds should be spent to resource neighborhood public schools to ensure they are desirable places to be and to learn, where students’ natural curiosity is inspired,” Tuttle said in a statement.

According to data from the Department of Education, New Hampshire’s EFA system is cost-efficient. Taxpayers are handing over a little more than $22 million this school year for EFA grants, about $5,255 per student on average. The cost per pupil for public schools is close to $20,000, sometimes more. If all the EFA students switched to public schools, it would increase taxpayer costs by another $63 million.

Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Democrat running for governor, promises to end the EFA program if elected and kick all of the students out of the school of their choice. Poor parents who want to send their kids to private schools would be out of luck.

“We don’t take taxpayer dollars to subsidize private schools,” Warmington told WMUR.

Both of Warmington’s children attended the elite Tilton School for secondary education, an independent boarding and preparatory school in New Hampshire. Tilton charges $38,500 for day school and nearly $67,000 for boarding school.

Warmington is a retired partner with the prestigious and politically connected Shaheen & Gordon law firm. Her husband, William Christie, is a partner at the firm. Partners in law firms maintain part ownership and take a percentage of the firm’s overall profit.

The EFA grants are available to New Hampshire families who earn no more than 350 percent of the federal poverty level. For Ahmad, EFA means her children have opportunities to succeed in school and in life. These are opportunities she could not afford on her own.

“It levels the playing field,” Ahmad said.