How did NH get to its current state of affairs in education? In three parts. Part One – a Failure of Economic Development

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Andru Volinsky and his wife, Amy, are pictured feeding their animals in East Concord.

From ‘A Book, an Idea and a Goat,’ Andru Volinsky’s weekly newsletter on Substack that is primarily devoted to writing about the national movement for fair school funding and other means of effecting social change. Here’s the link:


The Claremont school funding litigation began in 1990.  There are a few bits of history that should be touched on before we launch into the Claremont story because they explain why litigation was necessary and why it was pursued in the way it was. This first of three newsletters addresses economic development failures. The second newsletter addresses the influence of privilege and white flight from Boston. The third newsletter takes on NH’s tax pledge.

Although Satan is always a good place to start, I’ll skip the Massachusetts Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 that required towns with fifty or more families to arrange instruction in basic reading and writing.  I’ll also give short shrift in this newsletter to Horace Mann and the Common Schools movement which took hold in the 1830s. 

We begin with the calamity that New Hampshire faced during World War I when it became clear that many of its young men who went off to war could not read.  Embarrassed by its failure to prepare its sons (daughters were not considered), New Hampshire revamped its public schools in 1919 to create a unified state system of education and invested in teacher education at its state colleges which were called “normal schools” (from the French, ecole normale).

 In passing the 1919 legislation, the New Hampshire House of Representatives committee that first considered the proposal reported: “assuring of equality of educational opportunity is a function of the state and a measure of self-protection as well and that the cost of providing a fair chance to a child who happens to live in a town financially incapable of maintaining standard schools throughout a full school year is a legitimate and essential charge upon the state.”

As a result of the 1919 legislation, the state of New Hampshire’s share of funding to school districts rose from about seven percent to 12 percent with the bulk of the funding being in the form of a foundation aid program that was targeted to aid the poorest districts.  After a year or two, the aid level dropped to about five percent and, except for a one-year after WWII, never rose higher than five percent through 1998.

Let’s be clear. 

The response to a widespread education failure was to form a strong state school organization and to centralize authority in a state board with a goal of providing sufficient funding to provide for “equality of educational opportunity” throughout the state. Local control was reduced by the centralization.  In 1919, the New Hampshire Board of Education was given the “same powers of management, supervision, and direction over all public schools in this state as the directors of a business corporation have over its business….”

To those who claim that any increase in state funding will result in an unacceptable decrease in local control, the post-WWI experience makes clear that standardization and a modest reduction in local control is not always a bad thing. The fact that targeted aid funding is never sustained at promised levels should also serve as clear warning to those who would throw out hard-won constitutional principles to achieve short term political advantage. Even the imperfect guardrails of our Constitution gives us the opportunity to keep legislators (somewhat) honest.

The process of building a strong state school organization generally worked, but the problem of unequal funding continued.  In the mid-1940s, the State again revisited foundation funding and, in 1947, committed $2 million to again target state aid to the poorest communities, bringing the state’s overall share of school funding temporarily to about 17 percent.  The national average was about 40 percent state funding at the time.

New Hampshire’s school funding problem really isn’t about how much our state spends overall on public education. Even in the early 1900s, on average New Hampshire’s per pupil spending compared favorably with the rest of the nation. It’s the unequal distribution of resources and the over-reliance on local property taxes that’s the issue.

New Hampshire’s 19th century mills continued to flourish after World War II.  To the north, paper mills and shoe factories provided good jobs in and around Berlin, New Hampshire.  Converse Allstars were once manufactured in Berlin. The paper mill owners invested in their unionized work force, including by providing kindergarten for workers’ children before the rest of the state did. New Hampshire was the last state in the nation to require all districts to provide at least a half day of public kindergarten.  It did so in 2009, even though the state’s Board of Education endorsed the concept of public kindergarten as early as 1984. Berlin High School and Claremont’s Stevens High School were among the leading schools in the state.  At least some of the schools’ success was due to the availability of good jobs in the mills.  High school students dropped out of school but were able to build successful middle-class lives with mill jobs.  Schools were then able to focus their resources on the remaining students. 

Unfortunately, the mills began to fail in the 1970s and 1980s.  Berlin’s once vaunted position as the paper making capital of the nation faded.  In 2000, a 750-bed state prison opened that Berlin sought for the jobs it would provide.  In 2012, a 1200-bed medium security federal prison opened in Berlin.  Berlin’s population fell from 17,821 in 1950 to 10,331 in 2000.  Today’s population is about 9,500 with a reported median household income of $39,479. 

Over the same 50-year period, New Hampshire’s population grew from 529,880 in 1950 to 1,235,786 in 2000.  Today’s statewide population is about 1.4 million and median household income is $83,449.  (The national median household income is about $75,000).  In the fifty years beginning in 1950, New Hampshire’s population more than doubled while Berlin’s decreased by almost as much. 

Claremont’s population stayed flat during the same 50 years.  Economically, its story is like Berlin’s.  Textile mills shuttered and machining businesses faltered.  The Sullivan Mills Company, a manufacturing concern, was New Hampshire’s largest employer in the 1920s.  In 1946, Sullivan merged with Joy Mining Machinery Company to become the Joy Manufacturing Company, Claremont’s largest and most dominant employer.  Joy Manufacturing closed in the early 1980s.  Claremont’s median household income today is 45 percent less than the state’s median household income at $46,414.  By the early 1990s, Claremont had the highest local property tax rates in the state and a failing school system.  In the early 2000s, Claremont was willing to give property to businesses willing to locate in the city. There were no takers.

In many ways, school funding disputes are as much about failures to do economic development as an absence of direct state funding to defray the local costs of schools.  When major businesses fail, property values plummet.  This is true in New Hampshire and in every state across the country.  In a system dependent upon local property taxes, and New Hampshire is #1 in reliance on property taxes, the necessary revenues can only be raised from a reduced tax base by imposing higher and higher taxes.  Higher taxes amidst the closure of a dominant business leads to a municipal death spiral.  The fact that fewer jobs are available also may encourage some students to stay in school, increasing revenue needs and making the problem even more acute. 

Think of New Hampshire’s school funding problem, and school funding problems in other states, as failures of economic development at the state and federal levels.  No one at the federal level at the time of New Hampshire’s mill failures, was focused on concepts like “economic patriotism” and rural development as is the case today. There was no Infrastructure Investment and Redevelopment Act to help the failing businesses or to replace them.  The federal government was not much of a player in terms of school funding in the 1950s and 1960s.  This was prior to the passage by Congress of many of the anti-discrimination and special education laws with their related funding streams.  Even today, the federal government provides only about five percent of the funding for public schools.

In New Hampshire, the state was overseeing the public schools but not funding them.  Whole communities suffered without direct investment in local public schools and for lack of investment by the state to rejuvenate or create new businesses. Businesses wouldn’t locate in depressed communities and families avoided them as much as they could afford to do so.  Families who could not avoid living in depressed communities often needed higher levels of services from schools, and the problems became a crescendo of failure.

We’ll pick up the story next with a community that flourished while Berlin and Claremont failed and perhaps, not for the very best of reasons. We’ll also start to talk about William Loeb and NH’s Pledge.

More on NH’s Ed Funding Bills:

Remember when I said NH House Education Committee chair Rick Ladd and speaker Sherm Packard deserved only a little credit for creating a subcommittee to consider new school funding bills? It appears there’s a move afoot to kick all of the bills to “interim study” which is a common delay and avoidance tactic. We’ll see if the Dems on the Education Committee go along. If they do, there won’t be a recorded voted of the full House. The decision to “study” this 30 year-old issue further will happen on a consent or voice vote.

Andru Volinsky is a former NH Executive Councilor who is currently flunking retirement by writing his first book, teaching a graduate course in public policy, practicing law on a limited basis and now writing “A Book, an Idea and a Goat,” a weekly newsletter on Substack.  Volinsky was the lead lawyer in the Claremont School Funding case. He lives with his wife, Amy, in East Concord.

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