Democrat-led committee rejects $46M federal grant for charter schools

  • Students in the Art class at the Pace Career Academy Charter School in Pembroke on Tuesday, December 11, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 12/13/2019 1:40:42 PM

Democrats voted to reject the first installment of a $46 million, five-year federal grant to expand New Hampshire charter schools Friday, arguing the growth would strain the state’s educational system.

In a 7-3, party-line vote, the state’s Fiscal Committee killed a proposal to accept $10.1 million of the $46 million grant.

The move immediately upended the grant award, first announced in August by Gov. Chris Sununu. It was unclear Friday whether the U.S. Department of Education would freeze the rest of the grant amount, allowing it to be recovered at a later date, or if the money would be lost to the state.

The vote set off disappointment among charter school advocates and condemnation from the governor.

“I am sickened by today’s vote,” Sununu said, “and the Democrats must explain to every single student why they rejected an unprecedented $46 million grant for public schools.”

The money was intended to nearly double New Hampshire’s charter schools, from 28 presently to 55. Construction of new schools would occur over five years, with a maximum $1.5 million per charter, the Department of Education said.

But Democrats said the decision was a prudent one. The additional charter schools would overextend the state’s resources by requiring increased state investments for each school – and would stretch thin dollars for existing schools, they argued.

That could mean tens of millions in additional costs to the state over 10 years, the lawmakers said, pointing to an analysis by the nonprofit group Reaching Higher New Hampshire. Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut disputed those estimates.

The Fiscal Committee session – a usually ho-hum monthly affair attended by department heads and accounting staff – became a spectacle Friday.

Several charter schools brought entire classes to the hearing room to watch the vote; dozens of elementary students and high schoolers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with policy analysts and reporters. A significant portion of attendees spilled into the corridor, craning to watch the back-and-forth through open doors.

At the center sat Edelblut, taking in questions and criticism with a smile.

Members of the Fiscal Committee had already sent a trove of 44 written questions to the Education Department, which had applied for the grant; the Department had responded in a 33-page brief issued Tuesday.

On Friday, Democrats said they weren’t satisfied. The estimates of how much the state might spend were too high, said Concord Sen. Dan Feltes.

He cited the Reaching Higher Ed analysis, which found that the state could incur $57 million to $104 million in costs over a decade, depending on how much it expanded.

“At a minimum, there’s going to be tens of millions of dollars of New Hampshire taxpayer money being committed,” said Feltes, who is running for governor. “That’s not fiscally responsible.”

Other critics on the committee pointed to figures suggesting that existing schools have not even hit capacity. Figures from the Department of Education indicated that the 28 existing charter schools had 1,252 “open seats” in the 2018 to 2019 school year, which Democrats cited as evidence that expansion was unnecessary.

And some Democrats highlighted a projected 28% drop in enrollment across New Hampshire schools, an indication, they said, that the state should shore up existing schools instead of building new ones.

Edelblut took issue with each of the concerns. He dismissed the Reaching Higher analysis as flawed and incomplete, contending that it only factored some state funding for traditional public schools and that the actual increases could be less.

The commissioner disputed the significance of the open seats. Many charter schools are approved for a certain enrollment size but don’t have the structural capacity to meet that number, Edelblut argued.

He offered a different interpretation of the meaning of the state’s falling enrollment. Shrinking class sizes means the state needs to be more innovative with alternative educational paths, Edelblut said – which he said demands more charter schools.

And he pushed back at what he said was an attempt by Democrats to classify the public charter school system in a different category than traditional public schools.

“We have to move beyond this, you know, the idea that somehow there are two systems,” he said. “What we have is we have one system that’s educating our kids, our kids are all different, and we need different educational opportunities for that.”

In an interview after the vote, Edelblut said he is unsure what happens next. The action technically only ends the first tranche of grant money, but because the full $46 million allotment was contingent on a specific development plan, it is unclear whether the U.S. Department of Education would strike the rest of the funding.

It is equally uncertain whether the committee would change its mind – barring a change in party control of the Legislature in 2021.

State education officials are planning to seek the advice of their Washington counterparts in the coming days, Edelblut said.

For a swathe of attendees, the outcome was disheartening. Shuffling out of the room in groups and lines, charter school students and their teachers said the decision highlighted the limits to the acceptance of charter schools in the state.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” said Skye Blanco, a Manchester junior attending Kreiva Academy. “I felt like they all went in there with their mindsets.”

Blanco who praised her school’s project-based learning structure, argued that opponents to the funding needed to spend more time in charter schools.

“I just feel like there was not really an understanding of what exactly we do, and the benefits that we have,” she said.

Tal Bayer, the head of school of Kreiva Academy, agreed.

“I believe a rising tide lifts all ships,” he said pointing to the funding. “People are looking at it as a zero-sum game and that’s not the case. There’s just, I don’t understand, I don’t know if it’s an older mindset.”

Republicans on the panel were less reserved about their thoughts on the decision.

“This is a political motion,” said Rep. Ken Weyler, a conservative fixture of the Fiscal Committee. “You have fulfilled your duties to the teacher’s union. Not to the citizens of New Hampshire.”

Democrats objected to that characterization, accusing Weyler of a breach of decorum. And they insisted that the move was the best one to preserve the charter schools already in operation – as well as the state’s traditional public schools.

“As a Fiscal Committee, it is our job to consider the financial impacts of any grants, not just on this Legislature, but on future Legislatures,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, the committee chairwoman.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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