New Hampshire's mission statement for the next generation should be: We will be the best state in America to start and raise a family, and start and grow a business. Many policies matter, but all evidence shows the dominant factor which will determine communities' ability to meet this mission is the quality of local public education. From pre-K to higher ed, New Hampshire must deliver America's best educational outcomes, funded sustainably and fairly, and available irrespective of the wealth of your town or household. It means challenging where the goalposts of how we fund education have stood for more than a half-century - and it will require leadership with competence, courage, and the charisma to sell big ideas. Here's what it should include:
1. Get honest about what "adequacy" really is...and stop taking The Pledge. The State of New Hampshire has lost lawsuits related to our failure, as a state to fund an "adequate" education, as our constitution requires. Here's the thing: We ask towns to pay a higher percentage of the cost of education today than we did at the time of the original lawsuits of the 1990s, and the gap between rich and poor communities is wider now than it was then. As state leaders continue downshifting costs from the state to the local level, and adhering to the goalposts of tax policy set by Republicans in the 1970s, we settle for America's highest property taxes, and a widening opportunity gap between a kid in Claremont and a kid in Bedford. We should not wait to lose more lawsuits to begin reversing this 50-year trend, and it starts with not taking The Pledge.
2. Reversing the privatization of public education dollars. Starting with the nomination of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, there may be no area of public policy where Gov. Sununu has been more ideological and extreme than in this area. Over the past several years, we have seen this done in piecemeal fashion, gradually privatizing state funding for public education. (For example, HB1686, passed in 2018, aggressively expands the Interest & Dividends tax credit to be used for private and parochial schools, reducing general fund revenues by shifting them directly to private schools.) In 2021, GOP legislators tucked a major expansion of school vouchers in to the budget, which would allow up to $9,000 of public funding per student to be spent at private schools.
3. State support for Pre-K. New Hampshire continues to lag behind virtually every state in the country in fully funding full-day public kindergarten, instead relying on Keno to fund some of the gap. We should honestly fund full-day K...and then aggressively move to provide state support for pre-K. Only six states provide no state funding for pre-K, and we’re the only one east of South Dakota. We know it improves long-term outcomes in everything from high school graduation rates, to crime rates, to average adult earnings. And professional intervention for learning disabilities and language disorders is done earlier, improving outcomes and saving money.
4. Increased starting teacher pay. In my years as a state and local government auditor, and as a mayor who did analysis of all NH school districts, the data are clear: The use of taxpayer dollars that delivers the best return on investment in all of state and local government is starting teacher pay. NH is below the national average in starting teacher pay (~30th), below many states with a lower cost of living. The range between property-rich and property-poor towns in NH is ever more stark, worse now than 20 years ago. We know the key to attracting families and entrepreneurs is quality local public education. We know the key to quality education is having great teachers in the classroom. And we know that the best way to get great teachers into your state or community is to attract talent early in their teaching career to you. Democrats' plan for increasing and improve state support for public education must include additional resources to targeted communities that lift starting teacher pay, and encourage affordable housing opportunities for new teachers.
5. Relieve the pressure on local property taxes to pay for public education. While Gov. Sununu’s plans would increase the pressure on local property taxpayers to pay for schools, he ignores the reality that New Hampshire relies more on local property taxes to fund education than almost any state in America. This is widening the opportunity gap between rich and poor communities, discouraging towns from developing housing for younger families and modest incomes, and ends with some of the highest property taxes in America. We must increase the amount of state education funding per pupil to a figure that more accurately reflects the real cost of quality public education, as part of a package of reforms designed to focus dollars on educational outcomes, and increase equality in educational opportunity.
6. Encourage collaboration between, and consolidation of, SAUs and districts. New Hampshire has seen a 25% decrease in the number of school-aged children in just the last 15 years. At the same time, however, we’ve seen a nearly 10% increase in school administrative units (SAUs). With about 288 school districts, and 105 SAUs, this means New Hampshire now has some of the highest administrative costs per pupil in America. We need a higher percentage of our educational spending to stay inside the classroom, because the data show that is where the biggest difference is made. By introducing a voluntary set of incentives encouraging districts and SAUs to consolidate and collaborate, we can provide property tax relief while improving educational outcomes.
7. Provide opportunities for debt-free higher education. Business leaders commonly say that the lack of available workforce was the largest long-term threat facing their business, and our economy - not the Business Profits Tax rate. The cost of lost productivity and recruiting was significant - more than the cost of investing in emerging members of the workforce already in NH. We have a specific plan that provides challenge grants that fund half the cost of a year of education in the trades, community college system, or university system, challenging the private sector to provide the other half of the match. It can be renewed annually, and the student builds skills and a relationship with participating employers along the way. If the student is hired by a participating in-state employer and remains for at least a set number of years, there is no debt to repay. This is a cost-effective, targeted way to retain high school students upon graduation, bring together the emerging workforce with employers with greatest need, and address high levels of student debt.