Lawmakers, education advocates, and state officials are entering the third month of a high-profile battle over whether to accept a large federal grant to double the number of public charter schools in New Hampshire.
Despite the grant’s likely demise, the debate surrounding it has reignited long-held tensions over charter schools, who they serve, and what they could mean for the future of public education in New Hampshire.
Here’s what you should know about the charter school expansion grant and charter schools in New Hampshire today.
1. Charter schools are public, tuition-free schools, but many use lottery systems that generate long waiting lists.
There are 29 charter schools across the state that serve about 2 percent of New Hampshire’s public school students. Unless established by a local school district, charter schools receive a base per-student grant of $7,188 from the state.
This is roughly twice the base adequacy aid for students at traditional public schools. But charter schools don’t benefit from the same access to local taxpayer revenue and targeted state aid available for traditional public schools.
Charter schools have enrollment caps, placed by the state Board of Education, but they often reach capacity before this cap, due to staffing and building constraints.
At some high-performing charter schools, this means that every year, interested students enter a lottery system and many end up on a waitlist to attend. The state Department of Education says that the charter school expansion grant could send up to $600,000 to certain schools that want to grow to meet this demand.
2. Waiting lists are calculated differently by charter schools across the state, leading to confusion about charter school demand.
Advocates for charter school expansion point to the Department of Education’s waiting list as proof of charter school demand. But these numbers are not reported uniformly by charter schools across the state.
For instance, Seacoast Charter School, a K-8 school in Dover that focuses on arts education, regularly reaches capacity at 300 students. This fall, the school had 230 students on the waiting list who wanted to enter this academic year.
But other schools keep cumulative waitlists that reflect interest from families years earlier.
Mill Falls Charter School, a Montessori school in Manchester often cited by charter school expansion advocates, technically has a waitlist of 630 students, but director Meryl Levin says these numbers don’t tell the full story.
Mill Falls and some other charter schools add students who did not make it through the lottery system to a waitlist, where they remain for years.
Levin says on the rare occasion that Mill Falls has an opening, it can take a while to find a family ready to make the switch.
“Even when I’m calling parents about an open 1st grade spot, I can still find myself in a situation where we’re going through several families [on the waitlist] before I can find someone wanting to move their kiddo,” she says.
3. Charter schools vary in focus and student population.
Charter schools vary widely in their pedagogy and target student population.
Some, like the Academy for Science and Design Charter School (ASD) in Nashua, focus on STEM education. ASD is ranked by U.S. News as the top school in New Hampshire, based on its graduation rates and student assessment scores. But it also has far fewer low-income and special education students than traditional public schools in Nashua.
Other charter schools, like Kreiva Academy in Manchester and PACE Career Academy in Manchester, focus on at-risk students who are struggling at their traditional public schools.
At a hearing on Tuesday, Ephrim Kolias, a 9th grader at Kreiva Academy, told lawmakers that his diagnosis of ADHD and autism would make it hard for him to succeed at a traditional public school.
“When I went to Kreiva, I could work at my own pace. I could go to my teacher and advocate for myself,” he said. “That’s the thing about charter schools: they can adapt to you as a person. Because they’re small, they can individualize for you.”
Mary Steady, who directs special education programs for the Manchester School District and oversees how students with special education plans (IEP’s) get services in Manchester charter schools, said charter schools don’t always provide superior services for students with complex learning needs.
“I can tell you that last week I received three phone calls from parents whose children [with IEP’s] attend charter schools, saying it’s not working out for them,” she said after Tuesday’s hearing. “So just as kids don’t thrive in traditional public schools, they don’t necessarily thrive in charter schools. I think that when we start painting each other against each other, that’s when the problems come in."
4. In spite of some schools targeting at-risk students, overall, New Hampshire's charter schools do not serve more disadvantaged students than traditional public schools.
Defining and measuring “at-risk” students is hard, but experts often use the numbers of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, who are learning English, and who are receiving special education services as an indicator of disadvantage.
The state Department of Education initially reported to lawmakers that New Hampshire’s charter school population has a high percentage of these students.
After NHPR found discrepancies in their calculations, the DOE corrected these numbers. Of the approximately 3,800 charter school students, the DOE says there are 549 students with special education plans (IEP’s). This puts charter schools close to the state average.
The state Department of Education reports there are 830 charter school students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch services, and 77 students receiving English Language Learner services. This is significantly lower than the overall state average, but in its charter expansion proposal, the state Department of Education says new schools would target more disadvantaged and at-risk students.
5. Charter schools are funded with a mix of state aid and private donations, and tend to spend less per pupil than traditional public schools.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, traditional public schools spend $19,720 per pupil, whereas public charter schools spend $8,473 per pupil.
Many charter school advocates point to these numbers to argue that charter schools are meeting students’ needs far more efficiently than traditional schools.
But critics of charter school expansion point out that some of the major costs driving per-pupil spending in traditional public schools - transportation, teacher salaries and benefits, and special education - aren’t fully covered by charter schools.
Teacher salaries are often significantly lower at charter schools, and many don’t receive the same kind of retirement or benefits that unionized, credentialed teachers receive at traditional public schools.
Charter school leaders say in spite of this, they recruit and retain high-quality teachers drawn to the freedom, creativity, and sense of community fostered in small charter schools. Some say they would like to spend more per pupil, but they can’t raise revenue from local property taxes in the same ways public school districts can. Instead, they rely on private donations and grants to help cover their costs.
People on both sides of the charter school debate say that as the state reconsiders the adequacy formula for funding public education, it should also reconsider the current formula for charter schools.
6. Lawmakers disagree on whether charter school expansion would save or cost the state money.
Democrats and Republicans have different interpretations on what expansion would do to state and local budgets, in part because charter schools cost local taxpayers less but rely more on direct state aid.
Democrats in the Legislature have rejected the first installment of the expansion grant - $10 million - multiple times, saying opening more charter schools would put the state on the hook for funding all of them, at a cost that they estimate could be millions of dollars down the road.
In response, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut released an analysis of charter school expansion last week. In it, he presents multiple models for how taxpayers could save money, depending on the rate at which traditional public schools reduce costs after losing students to charter schools, and the rate at which charter school enrollment increases.
His estimate: doubling the number of students attending charter schools over the next ten years would save taxpayers between $96 million and $178 million.
This contradicts the numbers schools are seeing with declining enrollment. Even as the student population declines, district officials say, the loss is not significant enough to cut teachers or lower transportation, facilities, or administrative costs.
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Democrat who sits on the legislative committee that has rejected the grant, said she doesn’t buy the DOE’s analysis.
“If you’re spending $19,000 per student and one student leaves, you are not saving $19,000. You’re saving much much less,” she said. “If you have 50 more students going out of the traditional public schools and into new charter schools, it would not allow the district to close a school or a grade or even a classroom.”
Edelblut says traditional public schools need to learn to take into account the realities of a declining student population - charter school expansion or not.
“At a certain point it becomes silly. If we say, 'We’ll continue to have these costs in perpetuity,' well, that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “If they have fewer students, they are going to have to adjust their cost structure.”
Edelblut says schools have already proven they can operate on tighter budgets, including after the Great Recession, when state aid and local budgets shrank. And despite most Democrats’ resistance to expansion, he says he is required by law to apply for and pursue charter school funds, and that he will continue fighting for the grant.