The Playing Field is Not Level; Difficulty in State Funding of Equal Education

posted in: Reform, Resources | 0

Introduction

Michael Kitch, (reviewed from: New Hampshire Business Review) writes about how New Hampshire provides us with an example of the tension between providing an adequate education and paying for it. Most people agree that the state is the protector of equal education but many poor school districts in New Hampshire face smaller enrollments and less state funding. Although the Supreme Court of NH mandated equal funding, any shortfalls were to be compensated for by local resources.

The Funding Squeeze

In 1997 the State Supreme Court mandated State funding of an “adequate education” statewide which currently costs about $15,000 / pupil. It also required that cities or districts make up any shortfalls. The current allocation is approximately $3,500 / student so the shortfalls can be as high as $11,500 per student. The squeeze on districts is overwhelming and the result is vastly different funding amounts per student and the exact opposite of an equal education. The additional tightening of resources has been exacerbated by the diversion of scarce funds to private and charter schools. Revenue at the local level is also dwindling while the cost of meeting minimum educational standards is rising.

Claremont’s Example

School districts are responding by cutting large parts of the budgets, but they cannot keep up with the other rising costs:

Speaking at the deliberative session of the Claremont School District in February, McGoodwin said, “We have been keeping increases flat, but we have squeezed the orange dry.” Although expenditures have decreased for the past four years despite increases in fixed costs and employee contracts, reductions in state aid, along with the elimination of the state contribution to the NH Retirement System, have added to the tax rate in Claremont.

 

The FY 2018-19 budget includes more than $2 million in cuts, among them $850,000 in technology and $542,000 in personnel spending. With some increases in revenue, the cuts more than offset the reduction in the stabilization grant of $263,528 to spare taxpayers the additional 38 cents on the tax rate it represented. 

 

“Sixty years ago the color of skin impacted the education children received,” McGoodwin said. “Today skin color has been replaced by ZIP code. The playing field is not level.” (Michael Kitch, downloaded from: New Hampshire Business Review)

Pittsfield’s Example

Although it happens slightly differently in Pittsfield, the resulting un-equal education is the same. Lower enrollment, higher insurance, low test scores, higher teacher turnover all result from poor funding responses by the state.

In Pittsfield, superintendent John Freeman, said that district budgets have been stable at just shy of $10 million, but the schools are operating under “severe financial pressures.” With a reduction in the stabilization grant of $86,000 and a 17 percent increase in heath insurance costs, the 2017-2018 budget added $2.18 to the tax rate and carried by just four votes. 

 

Freeman said that school enrollment dropped 40 percent in 2008, when Barnstead tuitioned its students elsewhere — a move that reduced state aid and prompted transition to a smaller high school. School improvement and planning grants provided funding to restructure for six years before expiring. Still, he said the high school was the fifth-lowest performing school in the state. 

 

Last year, Freeman told a legislative committee studying school funding that the district offered the third-lowest salaries for starting teachers in the state and suffered rates of annual teacher turnover of up to 20 and 30 percent.

 

“Sixty percent of our teachers have less than five years’ experience,” he said, “and we have five vacancies in special education. We have no one to teach a foreign language and we have no advanced placement courses other than through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School.” He said the school board has approached six other districts about the prospect of tuitioning high school students, only to find that five of the options would be more costly to the town while the sixth district expressed no interest. (Michael Kitch, downloaded from: New Hampshire Business Review)

Litigation?

Some have suggested that the only real solution is to bring litigation against the state because it has failed to comply with the Supreme Court mandate from twenty years ago. Because the funding formula for distributing state aid has three components—adequacy grants, property tax and stabilization grants—the sources for equal education are in place. But the changes to how those sources are collected and distributed have changed over the years, and the chance to correct or supplement the funding has not been improved, so what is needed is not litigation, but government intervention.

Legislation

The more obvious and less contentious solution is to legislate the correction to unequal funding of the state’s education systems. A capacity-building policy strategy would be to reduce the complexity of the funding formulas and implement a more direct funding formula between the amount needed and the taxes collected to fund equal education. For example, in 2017 the school expenditures were about 2.9 billion and the taxes collected amounted to 71%, or about 2.2 billion so why not collect the entire amount, thereby eliminating the shortfall funding at the local level? It is up to us to choose and implement new ways of funding what we care about, in this case, an adequate and equal education for all of the state’s school children.