My Turn: Charter school grant opponents are misinformed

For the Monitor
Published: 1/11/2020 6:00:52 AM
Modified: 1/11/2020 6:00:11 AM

The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee recently made the decision to turn down a $46 million federal grant designated for non-traditional, innovative New Hampshire public schools. This confusing decision has left many parents (especially parents of children with disabilities) and pro-education activists asking why they would turn down this much-needed influx of federal money.

The backlash against this action has sent the political spin-masters into overdrive, and unfortunately this has amounted to a tremendous amount of misinformation.

Opponents of the grant have attempted to confuse the issue by inferring that the money will be given to private charter schools and pushing the faulty narrative that the grant will actually cost taxpayers money – they claim “tens of millions of dollars over the next 10 years.”

Both claims rest on analyses done by a biased advocacy group known as Reaching Higher NH, and digging into those works it becomes apparent that their analysis is highly flawed.

Let me start by making this perfectly clear: Every dollar of this grant will go to New Hampshire public schools, not private or religiously affiliated schools. These non-traditional public schools are schools designed for students who learn differently than typical students, or who would stand to benefit from their innovative approaches to teaching.

Because they are public schools, they receive the base adequacy grant that all public schools receive, with an additional grant of $3,411 for a total of $7,188 per pupil. That additional grant makes up for the fact that these public charter schools receive no money from the local property taxes.

In comparison, according to data from the state Department of Education, taxpayers pay on average $15,865.26 per student enrolled in traditional public school.

The “tens of millions of dollars” cost figure cited by opponents of the grant comes from a series of Reaching Higher projections. Their faulty methodology simply multiplies the number of new public charter students by the additional charter grant. Such an analysis is only looking at half the balance sheet without accounting for any of the cost savings.

How many children with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) if they moved to a public charter school may no longer be needed? What about the savings to local property taxpayers because of reduced enrollments? Any financial analysis that just looks at one side of the equation is inherently flawed because it does not tell the full story.

Those who opposed the grant have also made the false claim that there are currently more than 1,000 open seats at existing non-traditional public schools and therefore any expansion is unneeded. In Reaching Higher’s analysis, the group took the maximum number of seats allowed under the school’s charter application and subtracted the total number of students enrolled in the schools. However, charter schools are not required to take the maximum allowed and limit the number of students they take depending on a number of restraints; for example, the size of building, number of classrooms and availability of grants.

Case in point: The Mills Falls Charter School has an enrollment of 168 with an authorized maximum enrollment of 230. It would appear on paper that that school would have space for another 62 students. While the school has the legal ability to expand to that high an enrollment, they do not have the physical space at their current location to educate 230 students. Based on analysis cited by opponents, the Mills Falls Charter School has 62 open slots, which is simply not the case.

In fact, not only do these 1,000 open seats not exist, the state current has 1,343 students on waiting lists for public charter schools. Mills Falls alone has a wait list of 630 students hoping to take advantage of their innovative approach to learning.

New Hampshire has great traditional public schools, but not all students thrive in them. For those who do not, or for those who want a more specialized education such as in the arts, or in STEM programs, public charter schools offer an alternative.

At the last Fiscal Committee meeting, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut refuted every point raised by opponents with the explanations and data to support. Despite highlighting how the claims about open charter school slots and costs were flawed, my Democratic colleagues stuck to repeating their prepared talking points as they voted it down.

This grant would have given opportunities to those 1,343 waiting-list students whose traditional public schools are not working for them. Voting to deny this grant tells those 1,343 students, and the many more like them, that their education needs take a back seat to politics. Is that the message we should send the youth of this state?

(Ruth Ward of Stoddard represents District 8 in the New Hampshire Senate.)


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