Opinion: How to address school funding needs


Published: 02-06-2023 7:00 AM

Andru Volinsky of Concord was lead counsel in the Claremont school funding cases and is co-counsel in the pending Rand school funding case. The opinions expressed are his own.

Kudos to Tom Schamberg, Dave Luneau and others who are working to solve our school funding crisis by proposing new legislation. Thanks also to Ethan Dewitt for his article describing their efforts (New Hampshire Bulletin, Concord Monitor, 1/31).

Both Schamberg’s and Luneau’s bills have merit, but before addressing the pluses and minuses of each approach, let’s first discuss the goals of a functional school funding system.

On the education side, the goal of a school funding system is to provide a basket of state-funded goods and services to allow every child in our school system to become a productive citizen. This basket should include teachers and para-educators, administrators, and other staff who help children learn to read and write, do math and science, understand our complex history, appreciate art and culture, begin to prepare for work, and adjust to our challenging environment. These personnel require buildings, equipment, books, and supplies. The goal isn’t to force every child to college. The goal is to prepare children to become adults who contribute to our society.

On the tax side, the goal is to create an equitable system of funding. In an equitable system, equal tax effort produces equal revenue. Our current system is not equitable. Some wealthy communities benefit from town boundaries set by King George or from state funding efforts that resulted in significant local development. Other communities are burdened by the state’s failure to respond when a key industry failed, or as one Newport resident once said, “because the glacier cut one way instead of another, they have the lake, and we have the school funding problem.”

The state’s current school funding system pays about 20 percent of the cost of k-12 public education. Tom Schamberg’s bill moves the funding closer to 50 percent with a per pupil stipend tied to the state average per pupil spending. One opponent claims Moultonborough spends $45,000 per pupil and that community’s high spending drives an impractically high average. First, Moultonborough’s spending per pupil is $29,469. More importantly, Moultonborough has only 443 pupils. Manchester and Nashua, the two lowest spending districts, have 23,640 students and their combined average is $15,907. Tying a stipend to the statewide average also makes us care about education costs in all communities in our small state.

Dave Luneau is right to respond that one size doesn’t fit all and that we should consider adjustments for the size of a district, the demographics of its students, geography, and location, but Luneau’s bill offers only $100 million for this purpose. That’s about $625 per child. He would also consider a bill that sunsets in one year.

As Schamberg says in the article, we need to change our approach to budgeting and review our priorities. Luneau’s bill fails this test. I might also add, we should have a hard discussion about taxes and the equity of how we raise money.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Let me end by suggesting we revisit a failed assignment to guide the effort to re-design a new funding system. In 2007, the legislature, responding to the Supreme Court, gave itself the task of determining “the necessary specific resource elements to be included in the opportunity for an adequate education” so their costs may be estimated.

Before we choose a mechanism to distribute a pre-determined amount of state funding as Luneau and Schamberg do, let’s identify specific resource elements necessary to provide an adequate education and cost them out in a concrete way that ordinary citizens can understand. In this way, working together through our differences, we can finally address the needs of the children and taxpayers of New Hampshire.