Our Turn: The math behind the fiscal committee’s tabling of charter school grant

Published: 12/12/2019 6:45:22 AM

Members of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee were right to have questions about the federal charter school grant.

In the month since the committee tabled the proposal to double charter schools in New Hampshire and request additional information from the Department of Education, the public has learned that the grant could cost New Hampshire taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the next 10 years, there are currently more than 1,000 open seats at existing charter schools, and the federal government has wasted millions of dollars on charter schools that never opened – including one in New Hampshire that cost taxpayers nearly $500,000.

Because charter schools are public schools, they receive public dollars. On top of the state adequacy payments that all schools receive, state statute requires the state pays an additional grant for students at charter schools authorized through the State Board of Education – $3,411 in 2019 and $3,479 in 2020.

Using that data, an independent fiscal impact analysis by the nonpartisan nonprofit Reaching Higher N.H. found that the New Hampshire Department of Education’s goal to double the number of chartered public schools in the state through this federal grant could cost the state of New Hampshire an additional $57 million to $104 million in the first 10 years.

Even with these costs to the state, charter schools must fundraise to sustain their operations. Doubling the number of charter schools could put those already in operation in jeopardy, through enrollment declines, the potential for an over-tapped fundraising base and limitations on these federal grant dollars, which cannot be used for ongoing operation costs like building leases or teacher salaries.

We know the first five years for a new charter school are the most tenuous because of the financial instability. There is no guarantee that if charter schools are doubled in New Hampshire, the doors of those schools will remain open. According to a recently published report from the Network for Public Education, between 2006 and 2014, more than 35% of charter schools – 537 schools – funded by the federal charter school program never opened or were shut down. These “ghost schools” cost taxpayers more than half a billion dollars.

There are simply too many unanswered questions about the current landscape of charter schools in New Hampshire, and our state’s capacity to support doubling the number of those schools.

With more than 1,000 open seats at charter schools across the state, we don’t know if there is even a demand for doubling charter schools.

We don’t know what will happen to those charter schools that already have open seats when New Hampshire doubles enrollment capacity.

We don’t know if there is fundraising capacity in New Hampshire to plug the gaps in funding for additional charter schools.

And we don’t know the potential funding impact of the grant on traditional public school districts, which will lose adequacy aid but still have the same fixed costs to operate a school.

Only one thing is clear right now – it would be fiscally irresponsible for the fiscal committee to move forward with this grant, which would double charter schools outside of the legislative process, jeopardize the financial health of New Hampshire’s current traditional and charter public schools, and make an end run around the state budget that commits the state of New Hampshire to millions of dollars in unbudgeted education aid years into the future.

(Dan Feltes of Concord is Senate majority leader. Sen. David Watters of Dover represents District 4 in the N.H. Senate. Mel Myler and Dave Luneau of Hopkinton are chair and vice chair of the House Education Committee, respectively. Mary Heath of Manchester represents Hillsborough District 14 in the N.H. House.)


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