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N.H. charter school enrollment increases 14% in past year

Michael Brindley
The swell in attendance comes as the “school choice” movement has grown in prominence in New Hampshire in recent years, boosted in part by remote learning during COVID-19 and conservative criticisms of public school curriculum.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

Enrollment in New Hampshire’s public charter schools grew 13.89% over the last school year, according to new figures released by the Department of Education, even as enrollment in public schools dropped overall.

The department reported there were 4,912 students enrolled in the state’s 28 charter schools as of the start of the 2022-2023 school year. That represents 599 more students than the previous school year, when there were 4,313 students overall.

The numbers, which were shared with the Bulletin, represent students from kindergarten to 12th grade and do not count participants in the state’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School.

The swell in attendance comes as the “school choice” movement has grown in prominence in New Hampshire in recent years, boosted in part by remote learning during COVID-19 and conservative criticisms of public school curriculum. And it dovetails with a steady rise in the number of families using public funds for private schools under the Education Freedom Account program created in 2021.

Charter schools are alternative versions of public schools that are funded in part through state grants and in part through outside financing such as private grants and donations. Charter schools are not subject to as many curriculum regulations as traditional public schools, and can accept students from across the state.

The increase in charter school enrollment comes despite the number of students in New Hampshire public schools decreasing by 1.1%, the department reported earlier this month. That drop follows a decrease that has persisted since 2002, largely as a result of a falling birth rate in the state.

As attendance at traditional public schools have steadily dwindled, lawmakers and policymakers in the state have increased the number of New Hampshire charter schools in recent years.

In early 2021, the Republican-led Legislature and Executive Council approved the first tranche of a $46 million federal grant that would help the state double the number of charter schools over five years, reversing previous Democratic opposition. The grant is designed to add 29 new charter schools to the state’s then-existing 27. Democrats had opposed the expansion, arguing it would cut into funding sources for traditional public schools; Republicans had argued it would provide more opportunities to lower-income students.

The State Board of Education, whose members are nominated by the governor and approved by the Executive Council, approved three more charter schools in time for the 2022 to 2023 school year: Coastal Waters Chartered Public School, which opened in Jefferson with 129 students; Heartwood Charter School in Jefferson, which had 31 students on opening day; and Lionheart Classical Academy in Peterborough, which began its year with 155 students.

The rest of the 599 student increase came from some charter schools that dramatically increased their enrollments since the past school year. Windham Academy Charter School, for example, increased from 255 to 305 students over the past school year, and Founders Academy Charter School in Manchester jumped from 354 to 428 students.

Many charter schools saw steady enrollment this year, while some saw modest decreases.

And one charter school, Cocheco Academy of the Arts in Dover, permanently closed in the past year. That school had 39 students at the start of the 2021- 2022 school year.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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