Frank Edelblut, Commissioner of New Hampshire Department of Education and Department Attorney Diana Fenton showcase backpacks for New Hampshire students collected during Department's 5th Annual Backpack Drive. Education funding inequities that burden poor rural districts could be part of this fall's gubernatorial election. (source: The New Hampshire Department of Education )

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In 1997, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire ruled that the state’s method of allocating school funding violated the state’s constitution. The arrangement was especially hard on rural districts in the northern part of the state.

“We are confident,” the court wrote back then, “that the legislature and the governor will act expeditiously to fulfill the state’s duty to provide for a constitutionally adequate public education.” 

Twenty-three years later, the state government has done nothing to correct the funding system, which places a higher burden on local property taxes – 62% – than any other state in the union. That burden falls hardest on poor, rural districts in the northern part of the state, where swaths of public land cut into the tax base and high tax rates weigh on families while teachers still have to shop for supplies out of pocket, and many schools lack money for basic repairs. 

This fuels a cycle of rural exodus, declining enrollment, and school consolidation that further raises education costs, which in New Hampshire are among the highest per pupil in the nation.

New Hampshire’s rural areas, marked by a belt of White Mountain National Forest land through the middle of the state and extending to the “North Country,” the state’s upper third, depend heavily on ski and snowboard tourism in the winter and lake and wilderness recreation in the summer. 

Dairy, forestry, and ranching are also important industries, especially up north, where poverty and drug addiction are most acute and lack of jobs and population loss are persistent problems. The southern part of the state’s shoemaking and paper milling industries were prominent industrial centers until the Depression, and those cities—mostly Manchester, Concord, and Nashua—have since repopulated as bedroom communities for the Boston area. Over a third of New Hampshire’s population is rural.

With the pandemic looming over the start of the school year, it’s an urgent time for any state to evaluate school spending and equity. But back in February, New Hampshire’s government had already appropriated $500,000 to fund a commission of lawmakers and citizens to conduct a thorough review of the state’s funding system, contracting expert analysis from American Institutes of Research and University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy to propose new ways of funding the school system. 

In August, a wave of results came in. The commission affirmed that while New Hampshire’s system delivers strong results, ranking only behind Massachusetts in “outcomes,” there remains the glaring issue of fairness. Not only do “land-poor” districts pay huge tax rates, sometimes quadruple that of a district of comparable size, but their results are also demonstrably worse. 

Those results weren’t new or revealing, because school inequities have been known for decades. But clamor has ensued because the commission has floated plans for tax reform to fix the problem, with two proposals that could lower property taxes in the majority of municipalities while correcting the geographic inequities in education spending—all without increasing overall costs. 

The barrier to implementing this solution, which would bring New Hampshire back into the fulfillment of its constitution, is politics—specifically what’s known in New Hampshire as “the pledge.” 

For the last half-century, virtually every major candidate for public office in both parties has sworn to never support a statewide sales or income tax, a public pinky-swear to insulate themselves from the ire of the “Live Free or Die” vote that carries massive cultural and political weight in New Hampshire. It’s the fiercest obstacle to broad-based, redistributive taxes. In the past, efforts to reform the education funding system have passed through both the House and Senate but were met with enthusiastic vetoes from then-governor Jeanne Shaheen. The pledge did its job.

But this year, the pledge faces a threat: Andru Volinsky, a Democratic candidate for governor. He refuses to take it

Volinsky is very familiar with education funding and its problems in New Hampshire. He was the lead attorney who argued and won the Supreme Court case in 1997 and now serves on the state’s executive council. 

He’s in a close primary with the establishment candidate Dan Feltes, the majority leader of the state Senate. The two are polling evenly despite Volinsky being outraised 2 to 1 by Feltes. Democrat is riding a late surge into the final countdown to the September 8th primary.

New Hampshire’s current governor, Republican Chris Sununu, has given New Hampshire students, teachers, and parents a clear idea of how he will handle the coronavirus this fall: with as little state interference as possible. 

The odds of his signing a broad-based tax bill are razor-thin. In a general election, Volinsky would face fierce political headwinds with opponents trying to associate him with an income tax. So far, he’s won the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, unions representing service, education, and postal workers, education leaders, and other progressive and environmental groups.

If rural schools in New Hampshire receive fair funding, it will be due to the collapse of the pledge tradition. As the state slowly makes plans to reopen schools sometime in the fall, the voters will make their choice.