By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome
In New Hampshire, public education is a moving target.
It is a hodgepodge of activities and systems from pre-Kindergarten to its colleges and universities.
But the one unifying force along the spectrum is the state’s minuscule financial commitment.
The state’s contributions to public education puts it in line with state’s like Mississippi and Louisiana although its per capita wealth averages among the highest in the country.
As the former long-time lobbyist for the National Education Association—NH, the late Dennis Murphy, used to say “Never underestimate the New Hampshire Legislature’s proclivity to be cheap.”
Yet the state’s students rank among the highest in the country on national test scores like the SATs, somewhat due to the two elite private schools within its borders, but also due to the local commitment many communities are willing to make to provide so much more than an adequate education for their children.
The problem is the quality of public education on the elementary and secondary level is tied to a zip code not what state standards require.
Many of education’s moving parts recently have been and will be on display before the legislature and in a courtroom in Brentwood.
The Senate is grappling with the next biennium’s budget, which includes — at this point — a reworked, but not overhauled education funding system aiming more money to poor districts needing the most help, expanding the ever-expansive new Education Freedom Account program, and funding for higher education at the university and community college level.
And in the Rockingham County Superior Court, the ConVal School District and others are trying to convince a judge the state has grossly undervalued the cost of an adequate education the state Supreme Court says is every child’s constitutional right, and to force the state to pay the true cost of that adequate education.
Last week Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was on the witness stand and much like his deposition taken earlier, he was reluctant or you could say refused to define an adequate education or say what it cost saying he has never done that analysis.
Listening to his testimony, his department is but a messenger for the legislature and what it sets for policies and spending levels.
During a Senate Finance Committee meeting the next day, Edelblut displayed a far greater mastery of his department’s budget and other aspects of agency’s work than he was willing to admit on the witness stand in the courtroom.
His testimony coincides with the state’s argument that the court has granted the legislature broad discretion in determining what is an adequate education and how much it costs when having to pay for it.
They also hint at the separation of powers between the courts and the legislature and lawmakers’ sovereign immunity as reasons for dismissing the case.
While the commissioner was telling the court his agency is responsible for administering and enforcing the policies, not setting them, and funding set forth by the legislature, he has been one of the biggest advocates for the education freedom program, which is one of the most expansive voucher programs in the country although a number of states have bills before them this session that resemble the state’s program.
To date the program is far more expensive than Edelblut advised lawmakers it would be, about $3.3 million this biennium, when the costs to date are well north of $20 million, much of that money paying tuition subsidies to parents whose children were in private and religious schools and homeschooling programs before the EFA program began.
The program was sold as allowing low-to-moderate income parents to find the best educational environment for their child if he or she did not adapt well to the public school setting.
Tuesday the Senate Education Committee will hear three bills that would allow more students to be eligible for the program, which Edelblut told lawmakers would cost $30 million in each year of the biennium.
House Bill 367 would increase the income threshold for a child to be eligible for the program by about $9,000 for a family of four by increasing the cut from 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 350 percent.
House Bill 464 would allow children to automatically qualify if they are in foster care, military families, homeless, and transients. The cost of the change has not been determined although the bill passed the House.
And House Bill 446 would require the organization administering the program to inform parents they will lose their federal special education rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act if they participate in the program.
Senate Finance will also have to determine whether it wants to agree to the new education funding formula the House approved or something more in line with what Gov. Chris Sununu proposed.
Although the money is about the same, a little over $2 billion for the biennium, the House plan sends much more money to the communities that need it the most than the governor’s plan, which is heavily weighted on increasing the per-pupil grant, which rewards large or growing communities and not those needing help.
The House plan resurrected disparity aid which uses property wealth and poverty levels to determine where the money should go.
While many education advocates said the House plan is a step in the right direction, they also note the state still has a long way to go to make the funding system fair and equitable after more than 20 years since the court told the legislature to define an adequate education and fund it with state money, not local property taxes with widely varying rates which is unconstitutional.
The Senate Finance Committee will also have to decide if the House gave the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire, too much money, too little money or enough money.
The university system had hoped to finally return to the level of funding it had more than a decade ago, before the 2011-12 legislature cut it in half.
The House approved almost the $200 million the system received before the slashing, and added a little more so tuition could remain frozen and the Whittemore Center could be upgraded.
The community college system successfully fought off a plan by the governor to merge with the university system a biennium ago but continues to face the challenge of providing education in more technical fields while enrollment decreases particularly in the more traditional areas of instruction.
But the system has continued to freeze tuition like the university system in a state where the students have the highest college debt in the country.
New Hampshire’s education system is jumbled and in flux. One thing that could make things a little easier is additional money, but the only program with open-ended funding is the EFA and that could cost the state nearly $70 million a year if all the students in private and religious schools and homeschools decide to participate.
That is almost as much money a year the university system receives and more than the community college system receives.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.