By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — After a half-hour delay due to connectivity issues, the new Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approved the first installment of a federal grant to expand charter schools.
The first installment of the $46 million federal Department of Education grant, $10.1 million, was accepted on a 7-3 vote, not surprisingly down party lines.
When the Democrats controlled the legislature last term, the committee refused to accept the money saying it would obligate the state to future charter school costs while syphoning money away from traditional public schools at a time when they increased school funding to help poorer communities adversely impacted by the state’s education funding system.
The former fiscal committee turned down Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s request to accept the first installment of the grant a number of times.
But Friday, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats on the committee seven to three, the money was accepted.
Gov. Chris Sununu praised the committee for accepting the federal funds to encourage the growth of charter schools in New Hampshire.
“Today, commonsense prevailed and kids won,” said Sununu. “For two years, hundreds of kids have made the trip to Concord to advocate for what they believed in — and their hard work has finally paid off. Charter schools are public schools, and this game-changing grant will open up doors of opportunity for school children across the state.”
Republican leadership was also pleased the state finally accepted the federal money.
“After a year of needless delay in accepting the federal charter school grants that both Govs. (John) Lynch and (Maggie) Hassan have advocated for in prior grants, it is gratifying that the fiscal committee has today done the right thing for students and parents who need educational choice and opportunity,” said state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who was named to the committee Friday due to his support for charter schools.
“The Northeast Woodland Chartered School in Conway just opened and its 145 students depended on the good will of benefactors because of the refusal to accept these federal funds. Charter schools, which are public schools, have a long track record in New Hampshire of providing an excellent educational opportunity especially for children of more modest financial circumstances.”
Edelblut has said the grant would allow the doubling of the number of charter schools in the state. Currently there are 29 charter schools with more than 4,000 students.
On Friday, Democrats continued to oppose accepting the federal grant, saying additional schools are not needed at a time of declining enrollment, and the grants will shift future costs onto property taxpayers currently experiencing financial instability due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“At this time of declining enrollment, to talk about creating more schools with this virus situation when some (students) do not get to school,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, “makes no common sense to me.”
Instead he said, the state should be helping the traditional public schools that have spent millions to allow students to return to school buildings during the pandemic.
“We should be making every effort to shore up the public school system rather than create more charter schools,” D’Allesandro said. “Kids are dropping out of schools right now. That’s the problem we should be addressing.”
State Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, asked Edelblut how the department would replace the $17 million in per pupil state aid that would be shifted from local schools to the new charter schools.
Edelblut said his department created a white paper that indicates additional charter schools — because they have lower per pupil costs — would save taxpayers money.
The financial analysis indicates how school district budgets would be impacted and how to adjust as students leave for charter schools.
“We anticipate school districts may require a period of time to adjust their fixed cost,” he said, but eventually it is a significant taxpayer savings.
And Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, noted many of the existing charter schools have financial problems and face uncertainty. Adding more charter schools would put the existing ones in peril as well as increase the strain on the traditional public school system, he maintained.
Many charter schools rely heavily on state aid of $7,100 per pupil, nearly double the aid to traditional public schools, to survive, while others have maxed their credit out and some board members have loaned schools money, he said.
“This grant will only downshift costs to local property taxpayers,” Leishman said, “something that no one can afford as we are all doing our best to keep our heads above water.”
Edelblut referred to the white paper, saying because of innovation and greater flexibility the average cost to educate a student in charter schools is about $9,000 compared to a traditional public school at about $19,000.
Charter schools create a system that encourages and stimulates innovation, he said, and that is transferred to other charter schools and to traditional public schools as well.
And Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, asked Edelblut what he would do to make student funding more equitable, noting the higher per pupil grant for charter school students, and also that charter schools do not have access to statewide property tax money to help with revenues.
“I want to see charter schools go forward,” she said. “I want us to come together for an adequate education for everybody so we stop having this party-line divide.”
Edelblut said funding should follow the student so they can access public education options regardless of zip code. And he referred to the recent education funding study and several aspects moving forward in the legislature during the upcoming session.
But Ober wanted to know what the commissioner of education would do to provide leadership to support equitable funding for all students. She asked him to put together a white paper to explain what he intends to do.
Under the grant program, 20 new public charter schools would be added, seven replications of existing public charter schools, and five expansions of high-quality charter schools.
The program would add two staff positions in the Department of Education, a program administrator and a program specialist.
Current New Hampshire public charter schools have anticipated the money since the grant — the largest of its kind in the country — was awarded in August 2019, including five public charter schools that have already been approved by the State Board of Education and would receive up to $1.5 million apiece.
Additionally 20 current public charter schools would be eligible to apply for grants of up to $600,000 under the program.
Edelblut said traditional public schools are also eligible for grants.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.