Wave of federal charter school funding on its way to N.H.

Monitor staff
Published: 12/11/2020 2:56:40 PM

New Hampshire is now in line to receive the first chunk of a $46 million grant intended to double the state’s charter schools over five years, in the committee’s first significant action since Republican lawmakers took back control.

At a meeting Friday, New Hampshire’s Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted, 7-3, to accept the first $10.1 million of the $46.5 million five-year grant, beginning the next phase in what New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut called a “transformation” of the state’s school landscape.

If approved in full over five years, the funds are expected to ultimately help create an additional 27 charter schools to New Hampshire’s existing 29, both by allowing current schools to replicate themselves in new locations and providing start-up money for new schools.

“Today’s vote provides a boost to innovation in our schools, and to put more New Hampshire students on paths to bright futures,” Edelblut said.

The vote came after Democrats had consistently opposed the grants for over a year, arguing that expanding the number of public charter schools would stretch thin the resources the state has to support traditional public schools.

Charter schools receive “adequacy grants” from the state, money that follows the student if the student leaves a traditional public school and goes to a charter school. Democrats have contended that new schools would siphon those funds from public school systems, while Republicans argued that the traditional, “neighborhood” schools can downsize their budgets if they lose students.

But advocates of traditional public schools say cutting costs isn’t so easy. If, for example, a handful of students leave from multiple grades at a school, class sizes would go down by one or two students, but not enough to eliminate whole classes entirely. And school buildings generally require the same amount of heat and electricity if there are 100 students or 90.

Edelblut had attempted to bring the federal grants for approval at multiple Fiscal Committee meetings; Democrats routinely voted along party lines against accepting the grant funds.

On Friday, with Republicans newly in control of the Legislature and the Fiscal Committee, lawmakers voted on party lines to accept the federal money.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who had pushed for the funding that was awarded to New Hampshire in 2019 by the Trump administration, hailed the committee’s vote Friday.

“Today, common sense prevailed and kids won,” he said in a statement. “For two years, hundreds of kids have advocated for what they believe in and their hard work has paid off.”

But in his own response, Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester decried the move as ill-advised during the pandemic.

“The overhead costs to our school districts have only increased over the past year as they do everything in their power to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep our kids in the classroom,” D’Allesandro said. “With declining enrollments across the state, it is imperative that we invest more in our existing public schools, not create more schools that will be left underfinanced.”

Rep. Peter Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat, questioned the viability of some of the charter schools being expanded or duplicated, pointing to audits he had reviewed for 25 of the state’s charter schools that indicated some of them are in bad financial shape and have needed to extend lines of credit.

Both sides cited their own calculations to argue whether the expansion of charter schools would raise or lower costs for taxpayers.

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, raised concerns that the loss of students to charter schools would represent a blow to traditional public schools, pointing to an analysis by Democratic lawmakers that those public schools could lose $17 million in the long term. That loss, she said, would be borne by local property taxpayers in each town.

Edelblut countered that Department of Education projections showed that schools would be able to save money in the long term if they lost students, even with fixed building and staff costs.

And he said the pandemic demonstrated that demand for charter schools and other alternative education methods such as homeschooling is at all-time highs, characterizing the grant as a way to begin to shift the makeup of education in New Hampshire.

“We are creating kind of this innovative, public education system, in which all parties benefit as we can all continue to transform the way that we engage students, so that all of those students have the opportunity for success,” Edelblut said.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, agreed.

“Isn’t that why there’s some 1,300 students across New Hampshire waiting for placement in a charter school?” he asked.

The meeting represented the first of the new session with Rep. Ken Weyler at the helm. Weyler, a Kingston Republican, was previously chairman of the Fiscal Committee and House Finance Committee in 2011, under Speaker Bill O’Brien. He was appointed by Speaker Dick Hinch.

On Friday the committee elected Sen. Gary Daniels as the Fiscal Finance chairman, as the committee’s vice chairman.

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

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