Charter school advocates press state lawmakers to accept federal funds 

Monitor staff
Published: 2/18/2020 6:12:53 PM

Three times, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut has tried to get a committee of lawmakers to accept the first phase of a five-year $46 million grant to establish new charter schools in New Hampshire.

And each time, Democrats on the committee have killed the request, citing financial concerns around an expansion of schools. 

This week, Edelblut and his Republican supporters tried a new tactic: the state senate.

A late-filed bill from Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, would allow the Department of Education to accept the first $10.1 million in funds for the program – without going through the committee.

“The Fiscal Committee had three opportunities to do the right thing and accept these funds for at-risk youth, but politics got in the way every time,” Bradley said in a statement. “Now, since the Fiscal Committee refused to act, the full Senate will have the opportunity to cast a vote to support the 1,300 New Hampshire children on charter school waiting lists.”

Bradley’s bill, Senate Bill 747, would allow Edelblut’s department to begin the goal of nearly doubling the number of charter schools in the state, offering seed money to start-up charters and expansion money to existing charters.

New Hampshire was awarded the largest grant of any state from the federal Department of Education last year – $46 million over five years. Under state law, New Hampshire’s education department is required to apply for relevant grants, Edelblut has noted.

“We have good public schools in New Hampshire,” said Bradley at a hearing Tuesday. “That’s not the point. The point is that parents and kids, in particular, need to have options to do well and to reach their maximum potential.”

But the proposed grants have been met with skepticism from Democrats, who say federal money should go to existing charter schools in the state and that the costs of expanding the number of schools would burden traditional public schools.

Traditionally, the Fiscal Committee holds authority over whether to accept major grants – along with the state Executive Council. Bradley’s bill would bypass the need for that approval for these specific grants.

Meanwhile, as the debate hurtles into its third month since the Fiscal Committee first rejected the funds, both sides appear entrenched. One major point of disagreement: how much the additional charter schools would cost state taxpayers.

An analysis by the non-profit Concord organization Reaching Higher Education suggested that a doubling of charter schools could cost the state $57 million over ten years in additional adequacy grant amounts for students.

Edelblut has rejected those findings as based on an overly narrow band of factors.

Last week, the Department of Education released its own fiscal analysis that suggested the opposite. New Hampshire could save at least $62 million over 10 years, according to the report issued by the department.

That analysis relied on a model that assumed that schools could downsize their costs as students left through the years, and could realize savings within four years of a student’s departure – an assumption that opponents have criticized.

And it dovetailed with a bleak reality: New Hampshire’s enrollments have been plummeting for years as the state ages out, with little end in sight.

That dropping enrollment, Edelblut argued, means that traditional public schools are already facing yearly losses of students and could absorb further losses to charter schools as well.

“The reduction in students is all the more reason to invest in innovation,” said Edelblut Tuesday. “Our traditional public schools are going to be struggling to innovate, to find ways to continue to serve these declining populations… This investment will allow them to invest in alternative ideas.”

On Tuesday, all sides clashed whether to accept the money.

Sitting in rows in Representatives Hall, a dozen charter school students sat with teachers and administrators, watching their superiors testify one after the other on the importance of charter schools.

For Stephanie Alicea, the head of school at the Capital City Charter School in Concord, the value of charter schools should be measured in the experience of students.

Addressing the committee, Alicea highlighted examples at her own school, which opened in 2018 in the Steeplegate Mall. One student would barely interact with teachers at his old schools, terrified of saying the wrong thing. Another wouldn’t show up to public school. Another was bullied to the point of being suicidal. All have come into their own at the charter school, developing new passions in a safer environment, Alicea said.

“This start-up grant, if passed, would help our school grow and sustain and continue,” she said. “And help the students that I just described continue to flourish.”

Barbara Higgins, a Concord School Board member who is also the managing director at Capital City Charter School, said the idea that charter schools disrupt public schools is false. She compared it to offering lacrosse as a sport in addition to track; it engages more students with more options, she said.

Others fiercely disagreed. In a three-page letter submitted to the Finance Committee, Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, said that the funding would lead to uncertain costs for school districts and criticized the assumptions presented by the Department.

“On a very basic level, the status of funding for our public schools is inadequate to begin with so why would we double the number of charter schools until we figure out how best to fund our entire public education system, including charters,” Tuttle wrote.

“The commissioner has held a different position concerning the financial impact to the state of this grant in each of the past 3 months: first the fiscal committee was told it would cost the state nothing, then the commissioner acknowledged there would be additional costs and now he is claiming this will save money,” she added.

And Senate Finance Committee member Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat argued that dropping enrollment means the state should shore up its current schools before expanding new ones.

“SB 747 is an effort to try to appear pro-education in an election year as it focuses on increasing the number of charter schools, not supporting our existing charter schools,” Feltes said. “That’s a costly, long-term commitment when we have declining student enrollment statewide.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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