Charter schools have been in the news quite a bit lately, the subject of dual storylines.
The first is wrangling over whether New Hampshire should accept $46 million in federal funding aimed at expanding charter schools in the state. The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted 7-3 last week not to accept the money, despite hefty pressure from the state Department of Education and charter school advocates. The vote was, predictably, along party lines, with Democrats rejecting the grant and Republicans favoring it.
In a state as cashed-strapped as New Hampshire — it’s our advantage! — turning away that kind of money seems ridiculous. But the issue isn’t as easy as: accept the money; spend the money; benefit from the money. It’s complicated both by the way the funding works and the muddy history and aim of charter schools.
Let’s start with the latter. The charter school movement gained steam in New Hampshire about 30 years ago. The concept isn’t complex on the surface: What if public schools were freed from the cost, regulation and bureaucracy most now operate under? What if parents were the driving force behind their children’s education, both empowered and held accountable? And what if a small, self-contained public school had the flexibility to design its curriculum and teaching methods without having to adhere to state or federal policies, and could change whatever wasn’t working, year to year?
That’s the appeal of charter schools.
Charter schools, though, are an experiment — a gamble — using taxpayer money. When they succeed, they do so brilliantly, setting an example as to how education can and should work. When they fail, they do so at the expense of both their students and local conventional public schools, from which the resources are diverted.
And they fail often, the subject of the second storyline. A recent report by the Network for Public Education, a public education advocacy group, found that over an eight-year span, more than half a billion dollars from the federal Charter Schools Program — the source of the contested $46 million — was spent on schools that failed or never even opened. Nationally, the failure rate for charter schools is 37 percent.
And in New Hampshire, InDepthNH.org reports, nearly all of the charter schools that were started with $18 million in previous federal seed money 16 years ago are long gone. The 30 or so current charter schools have almost all started anew.
That includes several in the Monadnock Region that seem to be successes. Starting from scratch in 2006 after the Monadnock district shut down the town’s elementary school, the Surry Village Charter School has grown both in numbers and grades. It’s now housed both in that town and in a former Keene school. Monadnock Community Connections, or MC2, has proven so successful it’s been used as a model elsewhere. And even failed charter schools can teach us lessons, albeit very expensive ones.
Continuing to support charter schools is a good idea. The biggest upside to the movement is that it offers the chance to think outside the box, because regular public schools are indeed hampered by regulation and the bloat of bureaucracy. They must accept all students. They must offer nutrition and physical education, a degree of health care and a broad curriculum. They must pay teachers and staff who belong to collective bargaining units, driving up costs. And most of all, they must meet an endless collection of standards, rules and mandates.
Charter schools aren’t held to many of those requirements. They set their own rules, giving them the opportunity to cater their offerings to a select population or to try new ways of reaching students. Ideally, the lessons learned from these experiments can be integrated into all schools, leaving everyone better off.
The money lawmakers are debating is a one-time infusion, but any programs started or expanded with it will have to continue to be paid for. That was the sticking point for the Democrats on the Fiscal Committee, and it’s a valid reason to be cautious about accepting the grant.
The bulk of charter school funding comes from general education funds. In fact, it’s drawn from money local districts would otherwise receive. If two years hence, lawmakers cut back education funding, those new charter schools will still receive their share, per student. It’s the conventional districts that will lose out, having to either cut back or raise taxes.
Then there’s this: The state is being sued by the ConVal, Monadnock, Winchester and other public school districts because it perennially vastly underfunds its obligation to educate the state’s children. Lawmakers have set $3,701 per student as the amount the state is required to pay to fund an “adequate” public school education. Except under state law, charter schools receive about twice that per student, diverted from what would otherwise go to local districts. The reasoning is that if the state didn’t pay that much, the charter schools wouldn’t be financially viable.
As the N.H. Supreme Court takes up the ConVal case, then, perhaps the justices ought to ponder how conventional public schools, bound by expensive standards and regulation, could possibly be viable at only half of what the state considers the minimum cost of educating a charter school student.