Lawmakers are holding up $10 million of a charter school grant from the federal government, citing concerns over how the grant will affect existing public schools and the state budget.
The money is part of $46-million grant made to the New Hampshire Department of Education, with the goal of doubling the number of charter schools in the state over the next five years.
But before the DOE accepts the first installment of the grant, it must be approved by the fiscal committee and the Governor and Executive Council.
On Friday, DOE Commissioner Frank Edelblut told the fiscal committee that the money will help districts better serve at-risk students and create schools prepared to deal with New Hampshire’s declining student enrollment.
“[Traditional public schools are] really just trying to tread water with the funding they have.” Edelblut said. “This allows us to invest in that community so that they can find a way to modify the instructional model that can allow them to manage that continuing decline that we know will continue into the future.”
New Hampshire was awarded the largest grant of this kind in the country. In its application, the N.H. DOE emphasized the needs of at-risk and disadvantaged students and identified a group of “high-quality charter schools” that could serve as a template for the new schools.
However, of the seven schools listed, the majority of them have far fewer economically disadvantaged students enrolled than traditional public schools do in that same district. Most also have fewer students with special education plans and students who are English language learners.
But Edelblut pointed to North Country Charter Academy as an example of a school founded with local district support, aimed at struggling students:
“That is a charter school founded by the superintendents to help those at-risk students that were otherwise disrupting some of the education of the traditional students in the traditional setting,” he said. “We’re funding their opportunity to explore options.”
Republican Senator Gray said the grant was a good investment.
”Adding alternatives so that students can be better served and get a better education that fits their needs? Right on. And spending the federal money for it? That’s good for me,” he said.
But Democratic lawmakers questioned whether, in spite of significant start-up funds from the federal government, the charter school expansion might actually cost the state more money.
Charter schools in New Hampshire are public, but their funding structure is different than a traditional public school, where the state provides $3,708.78 of base adequacy aid per pupil.
In comparison, charter schools approved by the State Board of Education receive more per-pupil adequacy aid - $7,188.00 - and don’t receive the same kind of support from local taxpayers.
Edelblut said, even with thousands more charter school students, the state would not see an increase in expenditures, because the rate of the overall decline in student enrollment would outpace the increase in charter school students.
The Fiscal committee voted to table the request, along partisan lines. Committee members told members of the DOE they would send follow-up questions and concerns. After that, the committee will likely take up the issue again.
In a statement after the vote, Senator Finance Chair Lou D’Allesandro wrote:
“These grant dollars do not come without strings attached—they require investments from the state not accounted for in the current two-year budget and pose unanticipated costs to municipalities, including transportation costs for in-district busing. It is prudent legislators weigh this decision carefully while looking at the full education landscape in New Hampshire.”
Governor Sununu condemned the decision, saying: “This game-changing grant would have cost New Hampshire taxpayers nothing and would have supported public charter schools across the state. It is clear that Democrats would rather see these innovative, public-school programs fail rather than support our successful system.”
Commissioner Frank Edelblut wrote: “This grant would build on that success by giving both public charter and traditional district schools a chance to try new ways to reach students most at risk. We should focus on students, rather than defending the status quo.”