AFT-NH testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on the State Budget
Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH
Thank you, Chair Gray and Members of the Senate Finance Committee, for reading my testimony.
My name is Debrah Howes. I am the president of the American Federation of Teachers-NH.
AFT-NH represents 4,000 teachers, paraeducators and school support staff, higher education faculty and town and municipal employees across New Hampshire. My members work with nearly 30,000 of the 165,000 public school students in New Hampshire in one way or another as well as working with thousands of public university students.
Every child in New Hampshire deserves a great education, on that I think we can all agree. We all want our children and grandchildren to learn reading, math and science, be inspired by music, art and literature, and have small class sizes, individual attention from a caring, teacher who is an expert in her subject and learning support from highly skilled paraeducators when needed. We also want our students to participate in hands on, experiential and project based learning, learn how to use new technologies to prepare them for jobs, life skills or for college. We want our children to have a well-stocked school library and know how to use it, understand all the lessons of history and the workings of civics so they can be full participants in our communities at all levels.
Education is so important that our NH Constitution actually guarantees each and every Granite State child the opportunity of an “adequate” public education no matter where they live in the state. That is a solemn promise our state makes to 165,000 of its young citizens. That is not just my opinion, it is the finding of the NH Supreme Court in the Claremont case, and it has been upheld in numerous cases in the past 30 years. The court made clear that “adequate” was not bare bones but actually the robust public education necessary to prepare students for the workforce, college or whatever life held beyond graduation, like I described above.
What hasn’t happened in the 30 years since the Claremont decision is the NH Legislature finding the correct funding formula to sufficiently and equitably support that opportunity for an “adequate” public education in all, or even most NH school districts. In fact, the quality of the opportunity for an “adequate” education varies widely from district to district depending on the total property value in each town and the number of public school students living there. The state provides a total of approximately $4700 per student between the current adequacy aid formula and various need related grants. Everything else required to fund that “adequate” education we all agree our Granite State students deserve no matter which town or city they live in falls to local taxpayers, including the cost of bus service, buildings and school nurses. When the total value of taxable property is high compared to the number of students or their learning needs, raising that additional money is easier such as in towns like Moultonboro, Windham or Bedford. When the total value of taxable property is low compared to the number of students or their learning needs, raising that money is next to impossible and leads to incredibly difficult choices such as drastic cutbacks or even closing down schools. Cities like Berlin or Franklin routinely face such choices and it is not fair to those students! These students are Granite State citizens and deserve that opportunity for an adequate public education.
I am here today to speak in favor of many parts of HB1 and HB2 as passed and amended by the House. Here is what I urge the Senate Finance Committee to support as it writes its budget.
- Keep the House passed education funding formula that targets additional fiscal capacity disparity aid towards cities and towns who have lower tax bases as well as districts who serve more students living in poverty. If you are able to improve it to better support students in these cities and towns, that would get you even closer to meeting your obligations under our constitution.
- Do not expand the budgeted amounts for the state education vouchers. NH has a constitutional duty to provide an adequate public education. Vouchers take that funding and use it for other purposes, including private education, homeschooling, piecemeal enrichment activities and school supplies. This is not what the constitution requires the state to fund as part of its duty to provide a public education. If the state wants to provide this, it should set up a separate program, funded through a separate revenue source to be completely transparent with voters and taxpayers while still meeting its constitutional duty to the 165,000 Granite State students who rely on public schools for an adequate education.
- Support the funding request on the University System of New Hampshire. Our public universities have been systematically underfunded since 2011. We need to restore a level of funding that allows them to operate, recruit and retain expert teaching faculty and provide the education the Granite State families want their students to get in college. Keeping tuition affordable for Granite State students is also important. This is vital to our communities, economy and the future of our state.
- Keep the Community College System employees in the NH Retirement System. Taking the choice of joining the NH Retirement System away even for new hires – which close to 80% of them do – means the Community College System can continue to attract talented faculty. Taking away this choice will drive talent away. We want the best for our Granite State students at all levels. (Shrinking the pool of workers eligible for the NH Retirement System also destabilizes the system, which would be bad for all those currently in it!)
We at AFT-NH oppose the changes to the Education Trust Fund currently in the House passed HB1 and HB2.
- Restore the Education Trust Fund as a dedicated, protected fund to be used solely for the support of public education, including adequacy aid, fiscal capacity disparity aid, catastrophic special education aid and public school building aid.
- Move any funding of education vouchers out of the Education Trust Fund and into the general fund. It was off warrant expense the past 2 years that has cost nearly 30 million dollars – mostly for students to whom the state has not constitutional obligation while 165,000 other students are still waiting for the state to fulfill its duty to provide equitable funding for an adequate education. Stop diverting funding from public education.
We urge you to consider these points as you write your budget. Our students are the future of the Granite State. We have 165,000 public school students and their families relying on you to meet your obligations to support equitable funding of public education.
President, AFT-New Hampshire