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School Funds Matter, New Hampshire Panel Says

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As parties to a suit challenging New Hampshire's system of financing education await further directions from the trial court, a citizens' panel has concluded that funding disparities among the schools have negatively affected educational opportunity in low-spending districts.

The disparities reported by the citizens' panel are the central issue in the case now pending in the state courts. The suit, Jessman v. State of New Hampshire, is now in Merrimack County Superior Court awaiting a hearing to determine whether students in wealthier school districts in the state do better academically than those in poor districts.

The state Supreme Court, which had been asked to decide several constitutional questions pertaining to students' right to equal educational opportunity, returned the case to the lower court last month, citing the disagreement between the state and the plaintiffs on the relationship between school expenditures and educational quality. (See Education Week, March 7, 1984.)

The state has acknowledged that disparities in per-pupil expenditures exist, but has taken the position that the plaintiffs in the case have not proven that those differences affect student achievement.

Independent Study

The decision to undertake the recent study, however, was made independent of the legal action taken by the plaintiff school districts, according to both those involved with the project.

The panel's findings, which are contained in a report released this month, are based on visits to eight high schools in the state and on interviews with parents, students, teachers, and school administrators.

The 12-member panel, which was chaired by Kasper Marking, chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, was convened by the Center for Educational Field Services at the University of New Hampshire and included representatives from business and industry, state government, public and private schools, and a parents' organization.

The Center for Educational Field Services is directed by Richard Goodman, who is also the executive director of the state associations of school boards and school administrators, of which the plaintiff districts are members.

Difference in Quality

"Although there are several non-monetary factors that also influence school quality," the panel noted in the report, "it is our belief, based on what we saw, that money makes a significant difference in determining the quality of high-school education in schools of comparable size."

In reaching its conclusion, the panel found that schools with low property-tax bases are "limited in virtually every dimension--a narrow range of subjects taught, inadequate instructional equipment, insufficient supplies, poor physical facilities, and unsatisfactory working conditions for students and teachers."

The panel found that as a result of inadequate funding, New Hampshire schools, particularly those in poorer districts, will face difficulty in attracting and holding the best teachers and principals. "The problem is especially serious in the low-expenditure schools where many teachers have a second job in order to continue teaching," the panel's report explained.

The "continuing decline in the number of talented, dedicated persons preparing to be teachers," the report said, will force competition between school districts, with the poorer districts losing out.

In such poor districts, the panel reported, educational expectations are low, and "local traditions, values, and cultural patterns do little to reinforce and extend the academic goals of the schools. Yet it is the schools in these communities that are least able to compensate for these limitations."

As evidence that money does make a dif-ference in the educational quality of the schools, the panel members cited the "sharp contrast" between educational resources at two small schools they visited last year while conducting their study. One of the schools cited, Farmington High School, is a party in the lawsuit filed in 1981 by seven property-poor districts contesting the state's school-finance system.

At the Farmington High School, which is located in a community described as below average in property wealth and median family income, about half of the 321 students qualified last year for free or reduced-price school lunches, and per-pupil expenditures averaged $1,702. This year, the school had a teacher-turnover rate of 45 percent, compared with turnover rates of 22 and 27 percent the previous two years, according to the panel's report.

In addition, the panel noted that the school lacked sufficient supplies and up-to-date equipment, and the student-dropout rate last year was about 5.5 percent.

On the other hand, the Hopkinton High School, located in a relatively wealthy district, was described as a "first-rate small high school with an outstanding commitment to excellence in education." According to the report, the school spends an average of $2,956 per student, had a teacher-turnover rate of 18 percent this year, and experienced a student-dropout rate of well under 1 percent.

As a result of its recent findings, the study panel has agreed to continue its analyses and to explore ways in which business, industry, the legislature, and the educational community can strengthen educational opportunities in schools throughout the state.

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