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Spencer Rendahl: NH School Funding

My town school teaches the basics well, but it doesn’t have a lot of extras. Plainfield Elementary School’s gym doubles as an auditorium. Thanks to money raised privately, we’ll finally get a new playground this summer to replace one that’s thirty years old and falling apart. The town pays tuition for Lebanon High School so when formulating the budget, the school board looks closely at projected numbers of incoming kindergartners and outgoing eighth graders. This year the school had about two hundred students. The board would like that number to be closer to three hundred, as it was two decades ago. Like Vermont, New Hampshire is an aging state, which helps to explain the decline in students.

The school will always need a superintendent, principal, guidance counselor, and bussing, heat, and janitorial services no matter how many kids are enrolled, so the more kids served, the lower the cost per kid for the town. Keeping taxes low in the face of declining enrollment and fixed costs keeps the school board on its toes and forces it to strike a sometimes difficult balance.

A bill debated in the New Hampshire legislature this year that would have let parents use state aid for private education, referred to as SB One Ninety Three, threatened that balance.

To receive state money, public school teachers must meet high standards, and the school must pay for special education services and provide technology, foreign language, and music instruction. SB One Ninety Three would have drained public schools of students while paying for students to attend private schools that don’t face the same standards.

I’ve always taken pride in my kids’ school for being no-frills but solid. Standardized test scores show they’re getting a good academic education, and just as importantly they’re learning to get along with kids who come from sometimes very different backgrounds.

I was worried that if passed the bill would decimate our school by diverting students from public education and would put a greater burden on property owners – single people, parents, and retirees – to make up the difference.

The bill passed in the Senate in March on a party-line vote with Republicans supporting, Democrats opposing, and vocal support from Republican Governor Chris Sununu. But yesterday the House Education Committee decided to table the bill until next year, allowing more time to reflect on the wisdom of diverting scarce public funds for private schools.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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