With new GOP leadership, New Hampshire poised to use federal funds to double state charter schools 

Monitor staff
Published: 12/7/2020 3:47:22 PM

New Hampshire House and Senate Republicans plan to move ahead this week on the first piece of a $46 million federal grant to help double the state’s charter schools – their first major legislative action since taking power in the Legislature last month, and one likely to be politically divisive.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said his department will be submitting another request to accept the funding at Friday's Fiscal Committee meeting. Democrats had actively blocked the state from accepting the federal grant for the last year.

“We do intend to bring it to the Fiscal Committee again, next week,” he said. “And we are fairly optimistic, as I have been all along, that it would get approved.”

Edelblut and the department have been trying for a year to win approval for the grants, which were awarded to the state in August 2019 by the federal Department of Education under President Donald Trump. New Hampshire’s award, the biggest of any state applicant, was intended to double the number of charter schools here, adding 27 to the existing 29 and allowing five existing schools to expand.

The item Friday is likely to be the first tranche of the five-year, $46 million grant, around $10 million. 

Edelblut and Republican lawmakers have framed the grants as a generous opportunity to broaden educational choice in the state.

“It really has the opportunity to benefit so many students and families and really infuse and make a significant . . . investment in innovation in New Hampshire,” Edelblut said.

But Democrats, who controlled the Fiscal Committee through 2019 and 2020, had strongly opposed the grants, first voting to delay their approval until more information could be provided and later voting against them entirely.

For months, Democrats argued that expanding public charter schools could come at the expense of “neighborhood” public schools by drawing away state aid money. New Hampshire’s adequacy aid grants follow the students; a student who left to go to a charter school would mean a traditional public school would receive less, Democrats say.

In a statement Friday in response to the announced move, Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy – the ex-Senate president – argued that approving the grants would cost the state money in the long run.

“If the state doubles the number of charter school students, $17 million in state education aid will leave the traditional public school system,” Soucy said. “Since the overall overhead cost to a school district will not decrease along with the state aid, the $17 million will likely have to be raised locally by property taxes based on our current funding model.”

Edelblut, meanwhile, has cited a separate department-led analysis that suggested expanding charter schools would save taxpayers of between $60 million $176 million, depending on how much traditional public schools were able to cut costs as students left. 

The debate has carried on for months, with Edelblut bringing the grants forward in meeting after meeting despite Democratic opposition.

“We have been working through the process of allowing New Hampshire to receive that $46 million for public education to be used in New Hampshire,” Edelblut said. “So far we have not been successful.”

Now, with Republicans in charge in their first Fiscal meeting since the election, the grants are likely to be approved Friday.

Exactly who sits on the Fiscal Committee is unclear; neither the newly instated Republican leadership in the House or Senate had released all of their committee assignments Friday. But the Republican party, including Gov. Chris Sununu, has been broadly supportive of charter school expansion.

Edelblut said that despite the year-long delay in approving the grants, he believes that the full $46 million, five-year grant is still available to the state.

And he said that even if policies around charter schools changed with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, the Trump administration grants have already been approved and New Hampshire should still receive them.

The charter school expansions are the first step in what is likely to be a renewed push from Republicans to pass legislation emphasizing “school choice,” a philosophy that involves putting resources into alternatives to traditional public schools, such as charter schools and private schools.

Edelblut argued that the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning difficulties have sparked an interest in alternative education models among parents and students.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of innovation, creativity, of designing instructional practices that meet the needs of all students across the state in a variety of circumstances,” he said.

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

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