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NH’s School Spending Surge 3rd Highest in US. NHDems Want More.

In 2002, the first Harry Potter movie hit the big screen, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen was making her first (unsuccessful) bid for U.S. Senate, and Nelly was singing it is “Hot in Herre.”

And the per-pupil school revenue for a New Hampshire public school student was $14,184.

Twenty years later in 2022, that number was $22, 738 — an increase of 60.3 percent and the third-biggest jump in inflation-adjusted revenue per student in the country. Only Illinois (61 percent) and  New York (81.4 percent) rose more.

And yet, despite the explosion in spending, New Hampshire Democrats at the state and local level say taxpayers need to pay even more.

In Nashua, the school board has approved a new $131,061,021 budget, a 4.49 percent increase over the prior year’s operating budget, on top of record spending.

In Concord, residents will see a 2.9 percent education tax increase thanks to the $107.9 million school budget. That total is 1.58 percent higher than Concord’s previous school budget — once again, already a per pupil record.

Manchester is also considering a record $227.9 million school budget. Mayor Jay Ruias calls the school total a compromise figure, and part of his overall effort to get the school and city budgets under control after years of former Mayor Joyce Craig’s leadership. 

At the state level, both former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington support even more tax dollars for public schools. Craig is running on a pledge to “boost the state’s investment in public education.” And Warmington wants to shut down Education Freedom Accounts entirely and add that funding to public schools.

Neither Craig nor Warmington responded to a request for comment about soaring school spending, or the fact that it coincides with standardized test scores that are flat or falling.

The reason for New Hampshire’s high rank in per pupil spending is its decline in enrollment.

“Since 2002, student enrollment numbers in the Granite State have dropped from 207,684 to 165,095, which represents a decrease of 42,589 public school students, or about a 20.5 percent decline during the past 21 years,” the state Department of Education reported last year. The state’s public schools lost another 2,262 students (1.4 percent of enrollment) in 2022 alone.

Drew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, says nobody should be surprised by these numbers.

“During the first two decades of this century, New Hampshire spent 40 percent more to educate 14 percent fewer students, and those students wound up doing slightly worse in reading and math,” Cline said.
“These spending figures are adjusted for inflation, too, so no one can blame the rising costs of goods, services and labor for the large increases. Even after adjusting for all of that, New Hampshire still sees huge spending increases.”

All that spending for public school students comes as the state faces a potentially expensive court case on education funding. The ConVal decision, currently appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, almost doubles the state’s portion of per pupil spending.

The ConVal decision increases the state’s adequacy aid grant $4,100 per student to at least $7,300. If the decision stands, it would represent a minimum $500 million annual tax increase.

Both Craig and Warmington have been endorsed in prior political campaigns by the state’s two teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Educators Association. The union presidents, AFT’s Deb Howes and the NEA’s Megan Tuttle, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Warmington, Craig, and the unions, are all staunch opponents of New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts, the school choice program that allows families to opt out of the public school system.

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

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.

Craig said earlier this year if elected governor, her first budget would see an increase in spending for public schools.

“We need to fund public education in this state,” Craig said. “Right now, we are not.”

State Continues Work on ESSA Plan, But School Funding Inequality Still a Concern

States are inching closer to implementing their own education plans that fall in line with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In a bipartisan manner, Congress got rid of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015 and rolled back some of the federal government’s control over education policy, giving states more power to set their own goals and increase accountability.

In New Hampshire, state officials released their ESSA draft plan in May and accepted public comments until Friday. The draft version of the Granite State’s plan stresses competency-based tests over standardized assessments, and vocational education tied to industry needs. ESSA doesn’t change how often schools must give out standardized tests. It is still required that testing occurs in third through eighth grades and once in high school, but the law gives states flexibility in deciding what schools need to report, what their goals are, and what criteria determines if a school is struggling or not.

For example, New Hampshire school districts still need to report their high school graduation rates and the test scores of annual standardized assessments. Those school districts participating in the state’s pilot PACE program don’t take standardized tests every year, but use locally-designed assessments. If the federal government renews the state’s waiver, that program will continue.

However, under the state’s ESSA plan, schools would also be assessed based on new metrics, including progress toward English language proficiency and how well the average student is progressing from year to year at the elementary and middle school levels. Another indicator would also track how well the lowest-performing students are progressing each year.

High schools will also measure and report on college and career readiness. Schools will be scored on how many students fulfill at least two of nine requirements aimed at showing they’re ready for life post-graduation. Those requirements include SAT or ACT scores meeting or exceeding the college- and career-ready standard, getting a passing score on an AP or International Baccalaureate exam, scoring at least a Level III on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, earning a career technical education credential, completing a N.H. Scholars program, or finishing a N.H. career pathway program of study.

Depending on how well students perform under those metrics, schools would be flagged for extra support if students aren’t reaching those benchmarks. Schools who need additional help would get it through Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), and Targeted Improvement and Support (TSI).

Using the different metrics, schools would receive CSI help if they score in the bottom fifth percentile in the state or if their graduation rates are below 67 percent. TSI schools would be identified when subgroups consistently underperform according to the goals set by the state.

The state’s ESSA plan sets overall goals of 53.77 percent proficiency in math and 74.04 percent proficiency in English language arts by 2025. For different subgroups of students, the state has other goals. For example, students with disabilities are expected to hit 25.05 percent proficiency in math and 41.34 percent proficiency in English by 2025. Economically disadvantaged students are expected to be at 37.09 percent proficiency in math and 56.47 percent proficiency by 2025.

Some of those benchmarks could be hard to hit for school districts who are already strapped for cash and are seeing a decline in student enrollment. According to a report released last week from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, it projects that state aid to school districts will shrink by $16 million over the next five years.

In December 1997, the N.H. Supreme Court issued its landmark Claremont decision, calling for equal access to an adequate education across the state, regardless of community wealth or property values. The policy institute concluded that little has changed since that decision was handed down.

Image Credit: New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

The report notes that there has been a 40 percent increase in state aid to education since 1997, but there has also been a 15 percent decline in school enrollment statewide and significant disparities still exist from one community to another.

For example, property-poor communities like Claremont and Franklin continue to tax their residents at disproportionately higher rates to finance their education.

The research suggests that the disparities will continue and possibly worsen unless there comes a major change in how education is structured and funded.

In response, state education commissioner Frank Edelblut announced last week that the N.H. Department of Education would form its own committee, headed by the department Director of School Finance Caitlin Davis, to study the school finance problem and report its findings to a legislative panel that is considering changes to the state’s formula.

Since the release of New Hampshire’s ESSA draft plan, the education department has already received hundreds of comments, including some from civil rights advocates who want to ensure the state is held accountable for providing equitable learning opportunities, especially for marginalized students.

Now that the public comment period has ended, the state has about a month to tweak the plan based on the feedback before it’s submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for review and final approval in September.

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