With New Hampshire set to receive $46 million in federal funding to expand and improve its public charter school program, some are lauding the state’s efforts to offer alternative public-education options, while others have questions about the grant’s impact and implementation.
The federal grant, announced last month, was awarded to only three states, and is set to provide $3.3 million to New Hampshire in its first year to open and expand charter schools, as well as provide training and resources for charter school staff.
“New Hampshire charter schools have not only provided excellent educations for Granite State students, but provided a model for innovation and education improvement for the nation,” N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in a news release about the grant. “Every kid deserves an educational environment in which they can thrive. Charter schools provide a valuable alternative for students who need one.”
In New Hampshire, charter schools are public, tuition-free and open to any Granite State student. They are often billed as an alternative to traditional public schooling and may offer a unique focus or educational approach, such as an emphasis on science and technology, workplace skills, or project-based learning.
The state’s plan entails opening 20 new charter schools, opening seven new locations of current charter schools and expanding five existing schools over a five-year time period, according to the project abstract.
Seven schools that fit the federal definition of “high quality” charter schools have been identified as candidates for replication or expansion, though none are based in the Monadnock Region. At least 10 of the new charter schools to be opened are set to be secondary schools targeting “at-risk students,” according to the state’s grant application.
The proposal would nearly double the number of charter schools in New Hampshire. In 2018-19, there were 28 public charter schools in the state, according to the N.H. Department of Education, with three in the Monadnock Region: LEAF Charter School in Alstead, Making Community Connections (MC2) Charter School in Keene, and Surry Village Charter School.
During the 2016-17 year, 3,543 students attended charter schools in New Hampshire, the department’s data show. A September 2018 survey conducted by the N.H. Alliance for Public Charter Schools found there were more than 1,000 Granite State students on waiting lists for entry into these schools, with 85 percent of charter schools statewide conducting lotteries for applicants.
Matt Southerton, president of the alliance, called the state’s plan “very ambitious.” And though unsure whether the state will be able to meet its projections for the number of new schools, he noted that the funding will also benefit existing charter schools.
“I think that there’s a lot of good in that grant — a lot of professional development for the charter schools that are currently open, a lot of funding in there for board training for the board of education, authorizer training. There’s going to be a lot of resources to bring experts in from outside the state,” Southerton said. “I think we’re going to be able to improve our program a lot, and I think that’s very positive.”
But some question whether the plan would hurt traditional public schools. Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Concord Democrat whose district includes much of the Monadnock Region, said he is concerned local property taxpayers will shoulder the burden of state funding lost to students migrating to new charter schools.
The state provides charter schools the standard per-pupil base “adequacy funding” — currently roughly $3,600 per student — that traditional public schools also receive, along with an additional per-pupil tuition grant of $3,480 that’s specific to charter schools.
“So we’ll have additional schools. And how do the traditional schools from which these kids came make up that lost adequacy money? Because you still need the teacher, whether there’s 28 or 30 kids in the class, and you still need the building in which the school has to operate for the traditional school,” Volinsky said.
According to Caitlin Davis, director of the N.H. Department of Education’s division of education analytics and resources, the state wants to promote partnerships between traditional public schools and public charter schools. When authorized by a school district rather than the state board of education, charter schools are funded through the district using both state and local taxes.
“District public schools are authorized to start a charter school, and we are actually hoping that district public schools will be able take advantage of this money to potentially start an alternative [charter] program within their district,” Davis said. “That is one of the things that we really hope will go forward.”
The grant funding cannot be used for ongoing operation costs of new charter schools once they are established, according to Davis. There may be additional costs for the state associated with funding these schools going forward, she said, but the N.H. Department of Education is responsible for paying the per-pupil aid regardless of the state budget appropriation.
Under RSA 198:42, “the governor is authorized to draw a warrant from the education trust fund to satisfy the state’s obligation” to distribute adequacy funds, even if a transfer from the general fund is necessary.
The state is still working with the U.S. Department of Education to clarify some of the details of the grant’s implementation, Davis said, such as more concretely defining “expansion.”
Educators are also waiting on those details. Robert H. Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, said he attended a meeting of the N.H. School Administrators Association Friday in which the grant was discussed.
Without more specifics from the federal education department, it’s difficult to say what impact the grant might have on district public schools, Malay said.
“I think [charter schools] provide a unique opportunity for students that is worthy of a conversation, without question,” he said. “However, I’m going to go back to the lack of rules and say that until we get the rules, it’s hard to say whether or not it makes sense to pursue anything.”
Volinsky questioned the state’s assertion in its grant application that one of its objectives for the funds is to target “at-risk” kids, citing the percentage of students of low income who qualify for free and reduced school meals in existing state charter schools.
In 2018-19, charter school eligibility rates for free and reduced lunch ranged from about 3.4 percent at the Academy for Science and Design Charter School in Nashua to about 71.1 percent at the North Country Charter Academy, which has locations in Littleton and Lancaster, according to the N.H. Department of Education.
But in 19 of the 28 public charter schools, less than 30 percent of students were eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, the department data show.
“There’s a representation that we’re going to build the charters just like the seven ‘highly qualified’ schools, and we’re going to help kids get out of poverty because of all these new innovations. And then when you look at the seven high-quality charters, you find that they have much fewer kids from poverty than their surrounding communities,” Volinsky said. “So the premise that you need these charters to lift up the struggling kids is not correct.”
None of those seven schools has a free and reduced lunch eligibility rate higher than 20 percent, according to the state education department’s data.
But Davis said that if the U.S. Department of Education gives approval, the state also hopes to replicate charter schools serving “at-risk” students, such as the North Country Charter Academy and Next Charter School in Derry.
The state cannot begin using the funds until the grant goes before the Legislative Fiscal Committee, and then the governor and Executive Council, Davis said. Once those approvals are finalized, the state will begin accepting sub-grant applications for the funds.
The grant is likely to be considered at the Legislative Fiscal Committee’s November meeting, she said.
“We want people to know we’re working to get more information and develop documentation and guidance documents,” Davis said. “We want people to know that if they’re considering starting a charter school, at least let us know and get on the radar so we can start maintaining a list of people who have asked, and when we have that documentation ready, we can send it out.”