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NH’s rejection of federal grant rekindles controversy over charter school funding

  • Ledyard Charter School Executive Director John Higgins listens to a request from senior Morgan Severance, 18, of Lebanon, to get a ride home before an early dismissal declared because of inclement weather Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. "Direct communication and advocacy is important," said Higgins about allowing students to speak up for themselves. "We're working with disengaged and disenfranchised students. A lot of them do not like school. Period." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Language arts teacher Marianne St-Laurant, center right, works with Owen Truell, 18, center left, as her class works on dioramas illustrating stories they wrote Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Logan Evans, 15, of Enfield, is at left, and Summer Stone, 15, is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ledyard Charter School students Spencer Weil, Ethan Hill, and Kenzie Delabough, and teacher Marianne St-Laurent, right, serve themselves a meal prepared by cook Monica Masland, left, during the school's holiday celebration in Lebanon, N.H., Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. The school currently serves about 40 high school students and would like to expand to add a seventh and eighth grades. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Trevor Sunn, 16, of Grafton, left, shows off the string of wearable Christmas lights he chose during a Yankee swap to classmate Cody Gray, 15, of Dorchester, at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, N.H., Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Morgan Severance, 18, of Lebanon, middle, works with paraprofessional Al Davis, left, to finish some school work due before leaving for holiday break Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. "Sometimes it's hard for me to get what I'm thinking into words," said Severance, who dictated her answers to Davis to write down. "One-on-one learning is better for me than a class." Emily McFarlin, 18, of Lebanon is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ledyard Charter School Executive Director John Higgins gives senior Emily McFarlin, 18, of Lebanon, a gift during a holiday party on the last day of school before the holiday break in Lebanon, N.H., Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. "I'm not sure how much celebration they're going to have in the next week-and-a-half," said Higgins. So on Friday they had a special meal for lunch, a Yankee swap and gave each student a gift. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/21/2019 10:22:22 PM
Modified: 12/21/2019 10:22:19 PM

LEBANON — Earlier this month, 15-year-old Maddy Raymond did something she’d never done before: She finished reading a novel.

This she accomplished during English class at Ledyard Charter School, where she transferred in September after a difficult first year at Lebanon High.

“I wasn’t doing my homework at public school. I was failing my classes and I had no motivation,” said Raymond, who lives in Lebanon.

At Ledyard, Raymond has rebooted her academic career. Here, she said, the classes are smaller, the pace slower, the mood lighter. Her English teacher guided the class page-by-page through Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel Silver Linings Playbook rather than assigning chunks for homework.

“The atmosphere at Lebanon was really intimidating, but here it’s really laid-back,” said Raymond, sipping on a fountain drink between classes at the school, which inhabits a scruffy but cheerfully decorated downtown space that school officials are in the process of purchasing.

As evidence that some drifting students can right their course under conditions better suited to their needs, Raymond’s experiences represent common ground in a debate that has divided New Hampshire over the past few months.

In August, the state received a five-year, $46 million federal grant to expand charter schools in New Hampshire. Designated as startup funds, with an emphasis on at-risk students, the grant could have doubled the number of charter schools operating in the state.

On Dec. 13, in a meeting attended by hundreds of educators and schoolchildren, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted, 7-3, down party lines to reject the first round of funds, totaling about $10 million.

The vote angered charter school advocates, including Gov. Chris Sununu, who claim the money would have helped create more options for young people whose needs aren’t being met in traditional schools, but it came as a relief to groups concerned about the long-term impact of charter school growth. The controversy indicates a widening disagreement over the role of charter schools in an educational landscape marked by declining enrollment and fragmentation, as well as differing ideas about how best to meet the needs of all students.

“There are so many things to untangle when it comes to charter schools,” said Page Tomkins, executive director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. “I have mixed feelings.”

The ABCs of charter schools

A charter school is a publicly funded, independently operated school. It cannot charge tuition to families and, unlike a traditional public school, it does not serve a geographic region but is often designed to meet a specific educational need. New Hampshire’s 29 charter schools have varying missions, from serving at-risk kids to offering an arts-based, STEM-based or online learning approach.

In New Hampshire, a local school district can grant a charter. However, all but one of New Hampshire’s charter schools have been authorized directly by the State Board of Education.

The state’s first charter schools opened in 2004, and about 3,900 students currently attend charter schools in the state. Nationally, about 3 million students attend one of the 7,000 charter schools operating in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Vermont has no charter schools.

Funding is a chief sticking point when it comes to the peaceful coexistence of charter schools and traditional public schools. In New Hampshire, charter schools, like other public schools, receive about $3,700 per student in state adequacy funding. Additionally, they receive $3,411 per pupil from the state’s Education Trust Fund, which is financed by state property taxes and a mix of other taxes.

That second chunk of money comes from education funds that could have been used in the regular public schools, said Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, the state’s largest teachers union.

For example, “charter schools work well because of their small classes,” Tuttle said. “(Public schools) could have that too if they had stronger state funding. ... Regardless of how you do the math, the bottom line is: That much money is surely going to have some kind of impact on traditional schools.”

Charter school advocates, however, say that charter schools can do more for less money and rely heavily on private fundraising, ultimately costing taxpayers less money.

“The average cost per student in our local public schools is $15,000,” said Michelle Levell, director and founder of the nonprofit School Choice for NH. Since local taxes don’t fund charter schools, “that actually leaves a larger piece that the district doesn’t have to pay.”

The federal grant creates a new financial wrinkle in the debate. Because it’s earmarked mainly as startup money for creating new schools, critics say they’re concerned about the long-term effects on taxpayers.

Doubling the number of charter schools in New Hampshire, as the grant proposes, would cost the state $57 million to $104 million over the next 10 years, according to a study by the nonpartisan policy group Reaching Higher New Hampshire.

At the committee meeting, State Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut argued that those numbers are misleading. Although charter schools rely more heavily on state money than traditional public schools do, they use fewer taxpayer dollars overall, he said.

“If you’re concerned about cost, one of the questions you should be asking yourself is ‘What is the cost of educating a student?’ ” he said.

Subtraction and division

There are other reasons the charter school grant stirs controversy. One of them is the changing landscape on which these new schools would be built.

“Generally we’re seeing a significant decrease in student population in the last 15 to 20 years or so,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Board Association. “It’s a predicament for New Hampshire.”

In neighboring Vermont, legislators have addressed this demographic reality by forcing districts to merge. New Hampshire appears to be headed in the opposite direction.

“In the last 15 years or so, we’ve seen a trend where more and more school districts are withdrawing from their SAUs ... and cooperative school districts,” Christina said. “I think there’s a desire in some of these communities to have more local control.”

That trend creates challenges for districts ranging from maintaining facilities with fewer students to hiring and retaining superintendents, he said.

By further fragmenting the landscape, charter schools could exacerbate those challenges.

“We don’t have a shortage of schools in New Hampshire. We’re not overcrowded,” said Tomkins, who co-founded and directed a charter school in California in the early 2000s. “I don’t know that that infusion would help us as a whole educational community.”

Existing charter schools aren’t full; there are about 1,000 open seats, said Liz Canada, director of policy and practice at Reaching Higher New Hampshire, citing a second study the organization prepared for the Joint Legislative Committee.

“I guess my question is, if you double the number of charter schools in the state, what happens to the current charter schools?” she said.

Edelblut contends that those numbers are also flawed. He said that schools, for a variety of reasons, don’t always admit the number of students they’re authorized for. Additionally, he said, some of the state’s most successful charter schools, such as the Academy for Science and Design in Nashua, have chronic waiting lists.

New Hampshire has relatively few charter schools compared with many other states. A new report by the Network for Public Education casts doubt on the federal government’s support of their proliferation nationwide, finding that some 35% of charter schools that received federal funding between 2006-14 either shut down or were never opened, costing taxpayers $500 million.

Such findings may be fueling a political shift. Once widely supported by both political parties, charter schools have recently lost their sheen among Democrats. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have both said they’d limit charter school growth. Only Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, has spoken out in favor of charter schools, arguing that they provide options to families who can’t afford to live in well-funded districts.

How well these options stack up against the status quo is difficult to determine.

“When we talk in policy terms, in questions like, ‘Do students in charter schools do better?’ Those are tough questions,” Tomkins said. “All things are not equal.”

Test scores and graduation rates at a charter school that serves an at-risk population, for example, will naturally be lower than at its district counterpart. Conversely, a charter school with small classes may be able to achieve higher test scores than an overcrowded public school.

Complicating the issue of charter school performance is that they operate under different rules than traditional public schools. Only 50% of charter school teachers are required to be certified, for example. (One hundred percent of Ledyard’s teachers are certified.)

Tuttle, of NEA-NH, takes issue with charter schools having more lenient rules and less red tape, particularly in terms of answering to the public.

“In concept, charter schools are not a bad thing. The issue that we have is the lack of accountability and transparency,” she said.

Edelblut said the federal grant would address accountability. Included in the grant is funding for two new positions at the state Department of Education to provide additional support and oversight for charter schools.

But even if charter schools do operate transparently, they don’t answer to their local communities the way district schools do, Tomkins pointed out.

“It’s a competitor with different accountability,” he said.

Group project

John Higgins, executive director of Ledyard Charter School, which serves about 40 students, doesn’t like the concept of competition.

“We’re a partner,” he said. “This is about a team effort to connect with the needs of the students.”

Higgins, who served as a special education teacher at Kearsarge Regional High School before coming to Ledyard in 2014, has helped steer the school onto solid financial ground and establish its place in the community.

Key to that was creating a strong program of studies and reducing the district dropout rate, Higgins said.

In 10 years of existence, the school has given out 100 diplomas, many of them to young people who otherwise wouldn’t have graduated.

As the school began to prove its worth, the board did something other charter schools haven’t: It created tuition agreements with the Lebanon, Grantham and Mascoma Valley school districts.

The relationship is working well, superintendents say.

“Ledyard offers an opportunity for students who need a different atmosphere or different learning environment to be successful,” said Mascoma Superintendent Amanda Isabelle. “It fits very, very well for them.”

In Lebanon, the district works closely with the school and monitors its outcomes, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said.

“We know they’re receiving high school diplomas,” Roberts said. “That’s a wonderful thing.”

The Lebanon district and the charter school have thus far managed to avoid disputes over funding, Roberts said. However, she’d like to see the state provide more support to all schools.

“I think it’s about balance,” she said. “The charter school is a great alternative for our students, but we would also like to see an emphasis on increased funding for our public schools.”

Higgins had hoped to apply for a portion of the federal grant to add a seventh and eighth grade at Ledyard, a proposal he’d just begun discussing with area administrators.

“We really feel like expanding our program to the seventh and eighth grade is a need for the community,” he said.

And when it comes down to it, Higgins said, meeting the needs of the students in the community is the only thing that should matter.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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