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Education commission recommends funding formula overhaul

December 1, 2020 GMT

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire should replace its current formula for funding public schools with one based on student outcomes such as assessment scores and graduation rates, according to a commission that has been studying the complicated and often controversial issue for the last 10 months.

Lawmakers have been grappling with the issue for decades after the state Supreme Court ruled in the 1990s that the state is required to provide and pay for an adequate education. In response, the Legislature began sending each school district a set amount of aid per pupil — currently $3,636. The actual cost is much higher, however, and local property taxpayers make up the difference, with wide disparities due to differences in property wealth between communities.

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As a result, poorer communities have higher tax rates, fewer educational resources and lower student outcomes, according to research conducted for the Commission to Study School Funding, which released its final report Tuesday.

The panel, created by the Legislature last year, recommends ending the current formula, which is based on calculating the costs of “inputs” into education, such as staff salaries and teacher-to-student ratios, and instead adopting an outcome-based model. Under that approach, officials would determine a desired level of performance and predict the cost required for each district to achieve it. Doing so would direct more help to communities with greater need and where there is less ability to raise money, said Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene.

“The differences that exist between students across our state are vast, between Bedford and Manchester, between Winchester and Walpole, between Newport and Sunapee, and this education policy model that we’re recommending aims to try to equalize those opportunities,” he said.

Rep. Mel Meyler, D-Hopkinton, called it a fundamental change in how the state approaches school funding.

“We as state need to look at ‘our’ kids, not ‘my’ kids. ‘Our’ kids means every student in this state, not just those from wealthy communities,” he said. “We often talk about the development of a workforce in this state. Well, the workforce comes from all aspects of the state.”

Beyond the funding formula, the commission also recommends expanding career and technical education, fully funding special education, increasing school building aid and developing a more robust system of providing relief to individual taxpayers with low incomes or low net worth.

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Its 180-page report was based on more than 80 public meetings, with data-driven analysis provided by the American Institutes for Research and additional support from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. It now goes to the Legislature, where Republicans won majorities in both chambers in last month’s elections. Democrats said they were hopeful the Legislature will take action in the upcoming session.

“The threshold question that every legislator is going to have to deal with is, should the funding of schools be student centered?” Meyler said. “If they say yes, then what we’ve been talking about comes right to the floor and we move forward with that.”

Meanwhile, the issue remains before the state Supreme Court. Four districts in southwestern New Hampshire sued the state last year, arguing the current formula is unconstitutional. A trial judge agreed but declined to order the per pupil amount be nearly tripled, prompting an appeal that was heard in September.