Twenty years after the N.H. Supreme Court first ruled the state’s education-funding formula was unconstitutional, the story of public-education funding in the Granite State is still a tale of the haves and the have-nots, a study published earlier this month found.
The haves in this case are the property-rich towns and school districts, with the have-nots being their property-poor counterparts.
The Supreme Court’s landmark Claremont II ruling in 1997 was supposed to close the gap, the report said, and even out cost and educational opportunities. But the analysis done by the N.H. Center for Public Policy Studies finds the disparities are still there — and getting worse.
“One goal of the Claremont lawsuit was to provide a more equal education for students regardless of what community they live in or what school district they are served by,” the report said.
Claremont II was the second appeal to the Supreme Court of the lawsuit Claremont School District, et al vs. Governor, et al. The high court ruled on the first appeal, dubbed Claremont I, in 1993 that the state has an obligation to provide every student with a “constitutionally adequate public education and to guarantee adequate funding.” It then remanded the lawsuit back to trial court for a trial on the case’s merits.
While there have been other lawsuits and legislative changes to the state’s education formula since the case’s conclusion, they haven’t solved the problem, according to the report.
There still continues to be a wide variation between school districts when it comes to spending per elementary school student, the N.H. Center for Public Policy report found.
At $14,000, Waterville Valley spent the most per pupil in the state during the 1998-99 school year, the first school year after the Claremont II ruling. Wentworth spent the least at $3,886, according to the report. The difference in spending between the two towns was $10,114.
The gap between the extremes in per-pupil spending hasn’t narrowed since then; it’s widened. In the 2015-16 school year, Waterville Valley again spent the most per student, at $31,269, while Franlkin spent the least at $10,239, a difference of $21,030.
The same effect has been observed in the Monadnock Region, where Keene spent the most per elementary school student during the 1998-99 school year, at $8,014. At the other end of the spectrum, Hinsdale spent the least at $5,030 per student, according to the report, for a difference of $2,984.
During the 2015-16 school year, Marlow spent the most per student at $27,572, while Stoddard spent the least at $13,429 per student, a difference of $14,143.
Contributing to the disparity are declining school enrollments and the most recent change to the funding formula, which phases out stabilization grants over the next 25 years by 4 percent annually.
Stabilization grants were first awarded to school districts in fiscal year 2012 after the N.H. Legislature put in them in place following a change to the funding formula.
The change caused many towns to lose a lot of state aid, and the stabilization grant was created to help lessen the sting.
The first 4 percent cut to the grants hit this past school year.
“Who loses if the state continues with the current system?” the report asked. “Rural, property-poor communities, in both demographic and economic transitions, are those that will experience the most significant reductions.”
The report goes on to highlight Hinsdale as one of the communities in the state expected to feel the biggest blows from the loss of stabilization funding. The others are Berlin, Colebrook, Greenville, Lancaster, Newport and Northumberland.
Hinsdale’s stabilization grant was $2,455,617 in the 2015-16 school year, the year before cuts started. It’s likely to lose more than 10 percent of that grant by 2022, according to the report.
“Assuming nothing else changes, this means that these communities will have to increase their tax rates by as much as 10 percent — even before allowing for cost increases in other areas,” the report said.
Besides Hinsdale, the report notes the Monadnock Region towns of Antrim, Charlestown, Richmond and Troy among the New Hampshire communities most dependent on stabilization grants.
All those communities have significantly higher rates of poverty and fewer assets to support education than other cities and towns, the report said.
Antrim is part of the ConVal Regional School District, Charlestown is part of the Fall Mountain Regional School District, and Richmond and Troy are part of the Monadnock Regional School District.
Cities and towns that are being positively affected by the newest state funding formula share the common trait of having experienced increases in student enrollment during the past five years, according to the report.
Those communities are Bedford, Dover, Exeter, Grantham, Greenland, Lyme, New Boston, Stoddard, Sutton and Windham.
The report concludes by questioning the state’s methodology for funding education and whether it’s the most effective method to help communities that need the most help.
“If the state’s goal in funding education continues to be focused on eliminating disparities in per pupil spending, is the current plan to wind down stabilization grants in the face of declining enrollments the most effective method for assisting communities in ‘right sizing’ their education systems?” the report asks.
It defines “right sizing” as the “new education normal,” which could be smaller schools, consolidated districts and new models of learning.
Read the full N.H. Center for Public Policy report here.