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NH Democrats vote to put on hold $46M in charter school aid

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/8/2019 9:39:01 PM
Modified: 11/8/2019 9:38:47 PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire Democrats voted to put on hold a $46 million federal grant to bolster the state’s charter schools Friday, citing concerns it would drain funding from traditional public schools and arguing they needed more information to move it ahead.

In a 7-3 party-line vote, the joint House and Senate Fiscal Committee voted not to accept the first tranche of the five-year grant from Washington — $10.1 million — but instead to table it until the state Department of Education answers more questions.

The vote came as a surprise to some Republicans on and off the committee, prompting stern reactions from Gov. Chris Sununu and Commissioner Frank Edelblut of the Education Department. But Democrats said the funding could carry hidden costs, and they raised questions about its longevity.

First announced in August, the grants were touted by Sununu and Edelblut as a means to expand on the state’s existing charter school system. The money, awarded to three states in total and disbursed over five years, is hoped to allow for the addition of 27 charter schools to the state’s existing 28.

Charter schools are public schools, operating tuition-free, but they’re allowed to experiment with structure and academic approaches and are exempt from many of the requirements of traditional public schools in the state. Unlike other public schools, charter schools can accept students from any ZIP code; many institute waitlists and lotteries to determine who gets to attend.

Champions of the schools say they offer more options for families looking for a different educational approach or fit for their children — without the tuition hurdles of private and religious schools.

But the schools have long prompted skepticism from Democrats, who say the funding and focus put into the schools should instead go to improving traditional public schools.

New Hampshire applied for its $46 million grant through the Federal Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program.

The money would allow the state to build 20 new charter schools, to create duplicates of seven existing schools and to add expansions to five existing ones, Edelblut wrote in the department’s approval request to the fiscal committee.

In a statement after the vote, Edelblut pointed to 2019 assessment scores that demonstrate higher levels of proficiency for certain subjects for students in charter schools.

“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,” Edeblut said.

“This game-changing grant would have cost New Hampshire taxpayers nothing and would have supported public charter schools across the state,” Sununu said in a statement.

But Democrats say that’s incorrect, pointing to a number of costs that the state would shoulder if the charter schools were built. State law requires that students attending charter schools earn roughly double the state adequacy grants given to public school students — an additional $3,411 per student as of July 2019.

And local school districts are responsible for transportation costs for students in their district attending charter schools. The upshot, Democrats argued, could be an unknowable expense into the future.

“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,” Democratic state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro said in a statement.

On Friday Rep. Peter Leishman of Peterborough questioned Education Department officials on how the state could guarantee that the federal funds would continue to flow for the entire five years. And he asked how the state could prepare for the possibilities of the funds not continuing after the grant runs out.

“We are only asking for what has been awarded and essentially deposited in our state account for federal funding at this time,” responded Caitlin Davis, director of the Division of Program Support, adding that “if federal funds are not available, we will not continue to fund this with state funds.”

Other discussions Friday centered on the value of charter schools to begin with.

In a testy exchange with Edelblut, D’Allesandro accused the department of setting up a system in opposition to existing school systems.

“All the students are guaranteed an education by the New Hampshire Constitution,” he said. “Therefore, why are we creating a competitive situation with the public schools? ...Why aren’t we improving the public sector with these innovative and creative ideas?”

Edelblut rejected that premise, pointing out that charter schools are public schools and saying that the new schools would only enhance the state’s public schools. And he said it was the best way to leverage federal funds.

“Rather than think of these as competitors, I like to think of this as an investment in education for our public schools,” he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of throwing away federal support unnecessarily.

“There’s certain bias on this committee that prevents it from being reasonable,” said Rep. Ken Weyler of Kingston.

Friday’s decision delays the implementation of the grants for an unknown period of time. Fiscal Committee Chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat, said she would prepare a list of questions for the Department of Education to answer at the committee’s Dec. 13 meeting.

The $10.1 million is available through the federal fiscal year, which ends in November 2020. Whether the committee approves the grant by then or strikes it down at a later meeting is unclear.

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