CONCORD, N.H. — The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank, released a study Tuesday which found that the cost of public education in New Hampshire has increased by $1 billion over the past 20 years, even as school enrollment decreased by 30,000 students.
But when adjusted for inflation, the report noted, state spending on public education has actually decreased over time — which means local communities have paid for the overall increase in cost, according to the report.
Education policy experts in the state criticized the report, and said spending has increased to match the needs of students, including those from low-income families and those with special needs.
“Looking at these raw numbers, without accounting for the students that public schools serve, hides the real story of what’s happening in New Hampshire,” said Christina Pretorius, policy director at Reaching Higher NH, a nonpartisan education think tank.
Pretorius said that from 2013 to 2019, the number of low-income students across the state increased by 35 percent, and the number of students receiving special education services increased by about 10 percent.
“We know based on data that when students receive targeted or individualized attention or meals — we have learned more and more in the past 20 years that those types of interventions have massive positive impacts on students,” said Zack Sheehan, the executive director of the NH School Funding Fairness Project.
He criticized the substance and timing of the report, which came on the same day New Hampshire’s Education Commissioner testified in a high-profile trial about how much the state contributes to funding education.
“The Chairman of the State Board of Education promoting this report today, essentially republishing months old Department of Education talking points, shows this is nothing more than cover for Commissioner Edelblut as he testifies in the ConVal trial,” said Sheehan.
School districts are suing the state for not paying enough to ensure an adequate education for students. The state is arguing the case is about whether school districts can shift costs to taxpayers around the state.
The Josiah Bartlett Center study includes information for each school district, comparing the number of students, total expenditures, various types of expenditures per student, and unspent funds per student from 2001 through 2019.
New Hampshire spent $11,336 per pupil in 2001, around $500 less than the national average of $11,809 at the time. In 2019, New Hampshire spent $18,905 per pupil, around $4,000 more than the national average of $15,034. The study compares the $2.37 billion spent in 2001 on education with $3.31 billion spent in 2019. Enrollment went from 208,461 students to 178,515 in that timeframe.
After adjusting for inflation, that’s a 40 percent increase in spending and a 14 percent decline in enrollment, according to the study authored by Benjamin Scafidi, an economist and professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia where he directs the Education Economics Center. In a 2017 opinion piece for U.S. News & World Report he argued that too much public school money has been spent hiring non-teaching staff; he has also written about the benefits of school choice, including voucher programs.
Scafidi’s report found that much of the new spending went toward hiring new staff — with a 57 percent increase in district administrators. In 2001, the average public school employee earned $41,208 in 2001. In 2021, average earnings were $74,725. Those numbers were not adjusted for inflation.
The study also pointed to test score results in New Hampshire’s National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading and Math scores that fell by 4 points, to suggest that increased spending has not led to better outcomes for students. Research has shown that test scores can be a problematic way of evaluating schools, as students from wealthier families perform better and scores don’t necessarily indicate school effectiveness.
Drew Cline, chairman of the state board and president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, said he hopes the report will provide a benchmark since education spending is often only compared to the previous year.
“Knowing where you’ve been for the last 20 years gives you a good sense of where you might want to go,” Cline said. “You can see people have prioritized spending on school.”
Cline believes the policy implications of the report may be more useful at the local level than at the State House, although he said it could provide ammunition to those in Concord who want to increase state spending on education.
Pretorius said that statewide spending can be misleading since not all school districts have had a sharp increase in spending over the past two decades. The stark differences between school districts are amplified by the state’s inequitable school funding formula, she said.
“We know that New Hampshire has a school funding problem. The way the state funds its public schools is unfair to students, families, and communities. Students who attend public schools in high-need areas tend to get the least, while students who attend schools in wealthier areas have the benefit of more resources,” she said.