The legislative Fiscal Committee voted today to block a $10 million grant from the federal government for public charter schools.
The funds would have been the first installment of a $46-million grant to help the New Hampshire Department of Education double the number of charter schools in the state over the next five years.
Democrats warned the grant - which would go primarily to cover start-up costs for new charter schools - would increase state spending on per-pupil costs.
Under the state’s current funding formula, traditional public schools receive $3,709 in base adequacy aid from the state, but charter schools authorized by the State Board of Education receive $3,479 more, for a total of $7,188 per student.
“Making a random acceptance of this federal grant on a whim and committing New Hampshire taxpayers to millions of dollars down the road is just fiscally irresponsible,” said Senator Dan Feltes, a Democrat who is running for governor.
“This is a political motion,” Representative Ken Weyler, a Republican, told committee members. “You’ve fulfilled your duties to the teachers’ union, not to the citizens of New Hampshire.”
The vote highlighted deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans on public charter schools, which educate roughly 3,800 students in the state.
Hundreds of public officials, charter school staff and students squeezed into the hearing room, with more advocates and protestors packed into the hallway, holding signs reading “Are You for Excellence or Mediocrity?” and “What About the Health and Sustainability of Public Schools?”
Republicans argued that, by relying less on taxpayer dollars and more on grants and donations, charter schools educated students for less money, with better results.
Democrats cited the state’s declining K-12 enrollment numbers and funding struggles for existing schools, and said the state was better off fixing its funding formula than investing in new charter schools.
Data from the DOE indicates that most charter schools are operating below their authorized enrollment numbers. Democrats said this negated the need for new charter schools, but DOE Commissioner Frank Edelblut said charter schools were sometimes operating below enrollment because they did not have the finances or staff to expand responsibly.
“We actually have a waiting list of over 1,000. In fact, 1,357 students in New Hampshire are seeking a seat at one of our charter schools,” Edelblut explained.
Some of the schools with the longest wait lists - including Academy of Science and Design Charter School in Nashua, Seacoast Charter School in Dover, and the Microsociety Charter School in Nashua - meet federal criteria for “high-quality charter schools” and made the DOE’s list for schools to replicate under the grant.
These high quality charter schools tend to have lower rates of economically disadvantaged and special education students than traditional public schools in the same district.
But Commissioner Edelblut said the grant could also support charter schools like PACE Career Academy Charter School in Pembroke, which provides workforce training and wraparound services to a high number of students with special education needs.
“These are students that may not have been successful in a traditional education setting,” he said. “They are trying to find a place where they can succeed.”
Rachel Carver, the assistant director at PACE, had been planning to apply for money from the grant to help PACE expand its space to serve twenty more students.
“There were a lot of misconceptions about what charter schools are and who we are,” she said after the meeting. “We are different from traditional public schools. However, we are not their enemy and they are not our enemy.”
But Megan Tuttle, President of the NEA-NH, said the DOE was focusing its efforts too much on innovation at charter schools, rather than traditional schools.
“Why can’t we have that alternative within [traditional] high schools or middle schools or elementary schools? I don’t think we have to have two systems in New Hampshire,” Tuttle said.
Commissioner Edelblut said that the NH DOE planned to communicate next week with the US DOE’s Charter Schools Program, to assess whether the grant could be placed on hold, or would be redirected to another state.
Governor Sununu issued a statement after the vote condemning Democrats for their vote. “For a party that claims to care about public education, their actions today make clear that they will always stand with special interests over the wellbeing of our students. I would like to thank the hundreds of kids who made the trip to Concord today to advocate for what they believed in – the right thing to do is always worth fighting for.”
Click here for the DOE's full response to Fiscal Committee questions about charters schools.