It’s time for targeted aid to NH schools

Some communities simply do not have the ability to raise funds the way their neighbors can

It’s been two decades since Granite Staters went from using “Claremont” to refer to the city in western New Hampshire to referring to Supreme Court cases. The state Supreme Court’s order that New Hampshire must provide a constitutionally adequate education for its students has had long-lasting fiscal, educational and political effects that are still not resolved twenty-plus years later.

Why is public education a concern of the business community? New Hampshire businesses are the largest contributor of real dollars to the state Education Trust Fund (the so-called “statewide property tax” is really just a pass-through). Additionally, businesses have a vested interest in the type of education our young people receive. An educated workforce is a key component of New Hampshire’s continued economic vitality, and we look to secondary and postsecondary schools to prepare the 21st century labor pool for the modern economy.

The Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire believes primary and secondary education are a shared responsibility between municipal, state and federal governments. While the sources of funding for education are worth debating, we feel the more pressing issue today is how those funds are distributed.

BIA believes state education funds should be maximized through thoughtful targeting of aid to cities and towns most in need, instead of a uniform allocation to all districts regardless of financial or academic capability.

Some communities simply do not have the ability to raise funds the way their neighbors can. A property-rich town like Rye can meet the financial thresholds of an “adequate education” with fewer complications than schools in Seabrook can, a mere 10 miles away. This is true throughout the state. Berlin is greatly disadvantaged compared to Bedford. Haverhill is greatly disadvantaged compared to Hollis. Warren is greatly disadvantaged compared to Waterville Valley.

Likewise, certain individual schools have been determined to be underperforming by state or federal standards. These squeaky wheels need more attention than a different school in the same district which has obtained proficiency. In order to achieve compliance with those standards, often more resources are needed to improve the situation.

While it’s not a given that more money automatically means better results, it does mean that those schools have fewer resources to retain experienced teachers, modernize their facilities and create the kind of vibrant classroom experiences for students to thrive.

Some targeting is happening now. Districts with higher percentages of low-income students, or those with a higher number of those who speak English as a second language, receive some additional state funding. But this “targeting,” to the extent that it happens, is far less than it could be or should be because tens of millions of dollars in state education adequacy aid are instead being sent to our most affluent communities.

New Hampshire is limited in its ability to use targeted aid to improve educational outcomes. The past and current thinking regarding education funding is that “Claremont” required New Hampshire to first define an adequate education, calculate its cost and then distribute that amount uniformly (on a per-pupil basis) across the state. The effectiveness of this model has not been good. News reports say those communities that sued the state in the 1990s are not any better off financially since winning the original Claremont case.

To change the system and allow the state to put the aid where it’s actually needed is a complicated and difficult task. Since the high court is unlikely to reverse its view on what the state constitution requires for an adequate education, the only way to effectively give the state some level of flexibility in funding education is to amend the state constitution.

BIA is not proposing to amend the constitution to provide some kind of “escape clause” for the Legislature to shirk its responsibility to provide an adequate education. We in the business community very much want to see highly skilled, highly motivated young people graduate from our schools. Providing targeted aid will ensure the likelihood students in the North Country or the Upper Valley have the same opportunity to succeed as those on the Seacoast or along the Merrimack.

Absent a well-crafted amendment that allows New Hampshire to better target aid to those districts most in need, many students will continue to struggle, running uphill and tripping in holes, unlike their peers with a head start.

David A. Juvet is senior vice president/public policy of the Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire.

Categories: Opinion