Dear Governor Sununu,
I am writing because you are harming education and democracy in the Granite State. New Hampshire legislators listened to students and educators testify about how school funding penalizes the pupils and taxpayers of working-class towns and cities. You vetoed the resultant bill with disastrous consequences for many school districts.
I am the parish priest of Episcopal churches in New London and Newport — two towns 12 miles apart. New London is not the state’s wealthiest town, nor Newport the poorest — far from it. But our perverse system of funding means that the life chances for Newport kids are much lower than for their New London counterparts.
Wealthy parents have more resources to invest in their children (books, tutors, summer enrichment experiences, etc.), while children in low-income households are dealing with the many stresses of poverty (overcrowded homes, crime-prone neighborhoods, food insecurity, etc).
Countless studies confirm that the deck is stacked against poor kids when it comes to educational achievement. A rational funding system would direct more resources to poor districts. In New Hampshire we do the opposite.
In 2018 Newport spent $3,500 less than New London on each elementary school pupil but still had to levy twice the property tax rate on its residents compared to New London. To raise the same amount per pupil, the school tax rate in Newport would have to be seven times higher than in New London. Newport residents get hit with a double whammy: they pay more and receive less.
The starting salary for Newport teachers is paltry compared to other districts. They had one raise between 2011-2018. And Newport teachers have seldom received the step increases in salary that most teachers take for granted.
It’s little wonder that in the last two years Newport public schools have lost 55 of their 98 teachers. Think of the impact not just on staff morale but on pupil achievement.
The budget that you vetoed would have provided about an extra $2.6 million for Newport schools over the next two years, whereas New London would have lost $32,640 in state school funding. Instead, because of your veto, Newport will receive even less state funding than last year. Already on the brink, school districts like Newport are in desperate straits as they try to create a balanced budget for a fiscal year that has already begun.
This perverse situation prevails across the state. High taxes in property-poor towns mean that people are losing their homes, especially the elderly and disabled. Businesses can’t survive in — or won’t open in — the towns that need them the most because the property taxes are higher than in wealthy towns. And there’s a huge financial incentive for wealthy towns to secede from school districts, leaving the low-income towns to fend for themselves.
Are you blind to these realities? Cynics say that you’re happy to see public schools flounder and fail, so that you can lead a successful charge to privatize education in the Granite State. I hope that they are wrong, although you strongly supported the 2018 school voucher bill that would have allowed parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private schools.
St. Andrew’s and Epiphany Episcopal churches do a lot of work with local youngsters, including two after-school enrichment programs for 3rd-8th graders in Newport. Up and down the state, volunteers put in countless hours trying to help low-income pupils reach their potential. It’s a huge struggle because the playing field is tilted against them.
I coach girls’ soccer in Newport. Last season we played a match on a field with a slight incline. Our girls were frustrated at having to play uphill: all their running, passing, and dribbling took so much extra effort. But they knew the second half would be different. There is no such solace when it comes to their schooling; kids and parents from working-class school districts face a constant uphill struggle.
Teachers, parents and volunteer mentors can only do so much for our youngsters.
As governor, with a stroke of your pen, you could have ensured a more level playing field. Instead, you vetoed the bill.
I graduated from Kearsarge Regional High School in 1979. Going on to Harvard and Oxford, I was taught by world-renowned professors, but my best teachers were at Kearsarge. Our children and their peers deserve a quality education today, whatever their zip code.
Education should equalize opportunity, not reinforce inequality. Members of the public spoke passionately about the need to fix school funding at legislative hearings. Our senators and representatives listened. It’s time for you to do the same.
The Rev. Jay Macleod