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NH Education

Will new education funding reach N.H. districts most in need?

New Hampshire is currently facing two lawsuits over how it funds education, and the director of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project views the governor’s plan to increase spending as a response.

Students walk into the front doors at Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., on the first day of school on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.Kristopher Radder Brattleboro Reformer/Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Governor Chris Sununu has proposed overhauling the way the state funds education, increasing the amount the state pays per student and sending an additional $200 million to schools over the next two years.

That’s less than what school finance advocates say is needed, and they’re concerned about whether Sununu’s plan will send the money to the districts that need it most.

“The state is downshifting about $2.3 billion per year in education costs” to towns, said Zack Sheehan, director of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project. “We think that is the constitutional responsibility of the state.”

The plan also expands the state’s education freedom account program, provides $75 million for school building aid, and funds computer science and civics education.


New Hampshire is currently facing two lawsuits over how it funds education, and Sheehan views the governor’s plan as a response. In one of these lawsuits, over a dozen school districts argue the state should pay nearly $11,000 per child. Sununu’s proposal raises the base amount from $3,866 to $4,700. The average spent by school districts — in local, state, and federal funds — is more than $19,000 per child.

“One way to look at the governor’s line of thinking is as a pretty direct response to that lawsuit, albeit 10 percent of the way,” Sheehan said. “Part of this, I think, is a little bit of a preemptive admission of ‘Yeah, we should probably do something’ even if it’s just a little tiny bit.”

Testifying before the House Finance Committee Wednesday, Sununu provided additional details about his new proposal that includes significant changes to how state money is allocated to school districts.

His plan increases how much the state pays school districts per student totaling $127 million over two years. An additional $22.9 million would go to charter schools.


“People have been screaming about trying to do that for years,” Sununu said to lawmakers Wednesday. “Major lawsuits are being held up because we don’t do enough on that and right by that.”

It also pays more per student that is on school lunch, increasing that amount from $1,933 to $2,500 — an attempt to send more resources to districts with higher rates of poverty.

“With the huge increase we’re doing on free and reduced lunch, that’s typically a marker of the poorer towns, and so they’re going to get huge increases per student on all of those areas in a fair and equitable way,” Sununu told lawmakers Wednesday.

But experts have observed that often fewer students participate in free and reduced school lunch than are eligible.

“We need to make sure that we’re accurately capturing student need and is free reduced lunch program participation, the way that is structured now, the most accurate way to do that?” said Christina Pretorius, the policy director of Reaching Higher, an education policy think tank.

Sununu’s plan includes a 2 percent annual increase to account for inflation, so schools won’t have to wait every two years for increases to match inflation.

That change will benefit districts, according to Pretorius, because it acknowledges that year to year there are some substantial changes to costs at the district level, including health insurance, retirement costs, and the general cost of materials and textbooks.

To pay for this plan, Sununu would consolidate three funding streams into one, called extraordinary need grants.


But that would remove aid targeted at school districts with high poverty rates and the least ability to raise local taxes to fund education, raising concern over how much the neediest towns would receive under the new formula.

“An increase in $200 million in school funding is great as long as it’s going to where it needs to go,” Pretorius said.

An initial analysis by Reaching Higher found the school districts whose funding would increase the most under the plan are those with the most students. At the top of the list are Bedford, Nashua, Salem, and Dover.

“Our concern is the specific impact on the communities that can least afford it,” Sheehan said.

“So (school districts) are getting more money based per kid and not getting as much aid based on how low their property values are, which is an indicator of their ability to raise money to fund their schools since we rely so heavily on property taxes,” he said.

The concern is that rural districts with lower average property values will be the hardest hit.

And, Sheehan said, these towns have little if any ability to raise their taxes, which leaves them without another way option to fund education. That could push some of these districts to consolidate.

Sununu told lawmakers he hopes money for school building aid will incentivize districts to do so, in light of declining enrollment in the state.

The lawsuits facing the state over both how much it contributes and who has to foot the bill. The latter remains largely unchanged under Sununu’s proposal. Local communities are still responsible for paying for the majority of the cost of public education in New Hampshire.


This article has been updated to correct the name of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project.

Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_gokee.