When it comes to school-funding matters, it’s hard to imagine there being a slam-dunk bill in the state Legislature, but approval of Senate Bill 135 should be it. It has already received unanimous approval from the Senate’s 24 members and now awaits action in the House.
SB 135 seeks to insulate schools during the upcoming 2021-22 school year from an artificial drop in state aid brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under existing law, that aid is based on average attendance over the preceding school year, namely the current 2020-21 school year. Many schools have seen a drop — in many cases significant — in enrollment this year as remote and hybrid learning schedules led parents unable to stay home for the remote sessions to switch their schoolkids to private or other home-school options. With schools making plans to return to full in-school learning, many of those students are expected back in the fall, and current law would not provide districts with state aid for them. SB 135 would address that shortfall by basing the upcoming school year’s state adequacy aid calculation on the higher of the average attendance in the current and the preceding 2019-20 school years. That would make whole those school districts that lost attendance this year while not punishing any whose attendance might have increased.
SB 135 would also help close another artificial hole in state school aid resulting from temporary waivers granted last year by the federal Department of Agriculture of the requirement that schools receive applications from parents before providing free or reduced-cost meals to schoolkids of lower-income families. That has provided critical assistance to families in need while their children have been schooling at home, but it has had an unintended consequence. Parents have been slow in returning their applications this year, and because existing state law will base an additional component of the 2021-22 state adequacy grant — the differentiated aid component — on the number of applications, school districts will lose out on additional aid. SB 135 would address that by calculating that differentiated aid component on the school-lunch application figures from the 2019-20 school year, if higher.
The consequences, should SB 135’s one-time fix not be adopted, are stark. A drop in state aid due to the artificially low numbers will hit local property taxpayers, with a more severe impact on so-called property-poor districts where the need is likely greatest, particularly for school-lunch based differentiated aid. Already this year, many districts in this region — despite holding down costs while facing increased operating expenses during the pandemic — have adopted budgets that will increase local taxes due to anticipated drops in adequacy grants and other state aid.
Making SB 135’s passage even more of a no-brainer, lead sponsor Sen. Erin Hennessey, a Littleton Republican, told the House Education Committee last week that making school districts whole next year would also help New Hampshire meet a federal education level-funding requirement. That would keep the state’s schools in line to receive a projected $350 million in federal aid under Washington’s recently enacted COVID-19 relief act.
SB 135 is not a perfect bill. The Senate refused to adopt an amendment proposed by Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene that would have additionally bolstered 2021-22 aid for cities and towns with higher concentrations of low-income students and lower property values. And the bill of course does nothing to fix the long-standing inadequacy of the state’s education adequacy grants, which set the cost of the adequate education the state is constitutionally bound to fund at about $3,600 per student — 20 percent or less of the statewide average cost for local school districts.
That issue will be fought out — no doubt for quite some time — in the school-funding court challenge brought by ConVal and other area school districts. For now, though, SB 135 would help struggling school districts address an unintended shortfall in state aid brought on by the pandemic. Passing the bill is the very least the Legislature can — and, sadly, the most it likely will — do to shore up state adequacy grants. But, given the need and the prospect of qualifying for additional near-term federal school aid, the House should pass the bill and send it to the governor to sign.