The past two months have brought some big news on the charter school front, and the next two years promise to be even more so, at least at the state level.
One big change is that Republicans took control of the House and Senate in the November election. Thus, the nontraditional educational options favored by Gov. Chris Sununu and his Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut will enjoy support from the administration, and that includes charter schools.
In December, when control of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee flipped from Democrats’ hands to Republican control, the panel voted 7-3 to accept a $46 million grant and pave the way for a $10 million installment for the state’s charter schools.
The state has been eligible for the grant — offered by the Trump administration — since 2019, but the Democrat-led fiscal committee had refused the money. The why behind that seemingly senseless move points to the heart of the charter school debate.
Charter schools have gained in popularity over the past several decades as a hybrid educational option. They’re funded as public schools through a mechanism that awards a tuition per student. According to state law, the sending district “shall pay to such school an amount equal to not less than 80 percent of that district’s average cost per pupil.” That’s typically far more than the $3,500 or so per student the state pays each district to fund education. So losing students to a charter school costs districts money.
And charter schools aren’t answerable to public school districts. They are run by private boards, often consisting of parents, and don’t have to adhere to many public education regulations. Only half their teachers need to have state certification, and the directors can choose not to have them participate in the state retirement system. The curriculum is set by the directors. And while teachers can unionize, they often don’t, limiting their bargaining power and thus reducing costs to the school.
This is a double-edged sword: It frees the school to experiment with educational models not viable in regular public schools. And it allows the option of catering to students with specific interests or learning styles. But it also allows charter schools to avoid many of the standards and regulations of public education, which could prove detrimental to students.
We’ve previously noted these pros and cons. The biggest benefit, in our eyes, is the opportunity to explore alternative methods and models of instruction, which could perhaps eventually translate to public school systems. Note that while charter schools have a better set-up for such alternative approaches, traditional public schools can do the same. The Gilsum STEAM Academy is one example.
The federal grant is aimed at nearly doubling the state’s charter schools over five years, adding 27 new ones to the 29 existing charter schools.
Those 29 don’t include the recently announced Gathering Waters Chartered Public School, a Waldorf-inspired school opening next fall serving grades 1-9 (the plan is to add a grade as each class moves up, through grade 12).
The Monadnock Region has been fortunate to host several well-run charter schools. With the surprise news that the longstanding private Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene will shut down at the end of this school year, having a continuing venue for that educational approach should be particularly appreciated.
The larger question regarding charter schools — and the one at the core of whether to accept and spend the offered $6 million — is at what point charter schools become too much of a financial drain on other public schools.
Edelblut has made clear his — and by extension Sununu’s — preference for promoting nontraditional schooling. That’s a great idea to a point. But public school systems, like other large institutions, can’t simply downsize without a loss in effectiveness. There are economies of scale that allow local schools to, for example, bus entire town-wide student populations at a cost that would become untenable if far fewer students, spread out in the community, required transport.
There is also bloat in school budgets — including “obligatory” spending baked in from years of contractual increases and mandates. The trick to using charter schools is to find ways to implement the lessons gained through charter school successes without ruining public education on the whole.