N.H. Lawmakers Twice Reject Federal Charter School Money

Concerns voiced about costs once $46 million in funding runs out

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Many Democrats are growing increasingly uncomfortable supporting charter schools, but twice in the last month, a group of New Hampshire legislators have taken the unusual step of rejecting federal charter school grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education last year.

In August, the Education Department awarded New Hampshire about $46 million over five years to expand charter schools. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, and state education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a Sununu appointee, welcomed the news about the Charter School Program grants. But Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, and that's from where pushback to the grants has come.

While the grant money comes from the federal government, in this situation, the state legislature's joint fiscal committee signs off on whether the state education department can begin disbursing the funds. After the grants were awarded, the committee tabled an initial scheduled vote on releasing the money. Then lawmakers asked the state education department about the impact of the grants and the process that went into applying for them.

The answers apparently did not satisfy a sufficient number of lawmakers, because last month, the committee barred the department from distributing the money. The vote was 7-3, with all Democrats rejecting it and all Republicans voting in favor of it. Democrats argued that once the grant support for the expansion of new charter schools runs out after five years, the state would be on the hook for keeping them up and running without the federal funds.

"We know this grant would cost the state tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions out of the education fund in the future," Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Democrat and the committee's chairwoman, told WMUR, a New Hampshire TV station, after that vote.

The state affiliate of the National Education Association applauded the decision. "Cashing Betsy DeVos' $46 million check obligated New Hampshire taxpayers to coming up with new long-term funding for years to come, jeopardizing our neighborhood public schools," said Megan Tuttle, the affiliate's president, in a statement on the association's website after that vote. "We support efforts to increase charter accountability and slow the diversion of resources from neighborhood public schools to charters."

Then, on Jan. 10, another vote took place, with the same result. One Democratic lawmaker said that if the state education department is applying for grants specifically for charter schools, it should also seek out additional federal aid to traditional public schools.

New Hampshire has 28 charter schools, serving 3,800 students, in addition to a virtual charter school, and an additional 1,300 students are on the waiting list to get into charters, according to the state education department.

There's also a connection between the situation in New Hampshire—the state with the first primary election in the 2020 presidential race—and the national political climate. The federal Charter School Grant program, which exists in large part to help charters expand, has been sharply criticized by two Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Both have said they would shut it down, in so many words.

Edelblut, the state education commissioner, said in an interview that New Hampshire is required by law to apply for those grants. He also said the argument from Democratic lawmakers that the state will incur long-term and burdensome financial obligations for the charter schools is inaccurate, since the grants cover startup costs and not operational expenses.

"The cost of educating New Hampshire students falls to New Hampshire taxpayers. We are going to be paying to educate these students one way or the other," said Edelblut, who noted that on a per-student basis, charter school students cost significantly less in total than their peers in traditional public schools. "If there is a cost concern, then one would absolutely want to embrace this opportunity ... for education innovation through grants. And on a long-term basis, we're 'on the hook' for far less to educate those students than we would be otherwise."

State-Specific Context

Charter schools can be formed by groups of parents and teachers as well as school districts, the commissioner said, but they can't be managed by for-profit entities. That means, in his view, that there's less of the tension that exists in other states where traditional public schools and districts feel shut out of the charter community. And these new charter schools charter schools would be eligible for federal grants, such as Title I grant aid for disadvantaged students, just like public schools, he added.

But in an interview, Tuttle, the NEA-New Hampshire president, rejected the notion that charter schools wouldn't constitute a long-term additional cost for the state. And ultimately, she said, taking the money would mean that traditional public schools would lose out on aid to charters, which, she said, don't have the same accountability and oversight measures as their counterparts.

The New Hampshire union, she said, doesn't oppose charters in all cases.

"We need to fix what's going on with the current charter schools in New Hampshire," Tuttle said. As far as the grant's aim of expanding the number of charters in the state goes, she added, "Maybe in business that's an OK model. But I'm not gambling my children's future, the children of New Hampshire's future, on, 'Well hopefully, it's going to work.' "

Edelblut said federal officials haven't given him a deadline for disbursing the money or sending it back to Washington but that he's going to continue working with lawmakers to free up the money.

The state education department, not the legislature, is the federal grantee in this case. If New Hampshire's education department and lawmakers can't work out a deal, the money would revert to the U.S. Department of Education. And New Hampshire would forfeit any claim to the grant money going forward.

Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said it's the first time he's seen a state reject federal charter school grants in this way. He said the state has done a good job satisfying some common concerns about charters, and operators there are interested in expanding.

"A key piece of this grant is actually trying to give some money to districts so that they can innovate, probably with small schools," Ziebarth said. "They've made a pretty good case for demand from a variety of angles."

Vol. 39, Issue 19, Page 6

Published in Print: January 22, 2020, as N.H. Lawmakers Twice Reject Federal Charter Aid
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