Members of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted 7 to 3 on Friday to table the grant from the federal Charter School Program (CSP), with the majority Democrats saying they were concerned about the effect that the expansion of charter schools could have on traditional public schools at a time of decreasing enrollment.
Democrats won control of the state legislature last year, though the governor, Chris Sununu, and the state education commissioner, Frank Edelblut, are both Republican. Edelblut is a businessman and one-term state representative who home-schooled his seven children. Both men supported the grant.
Charter schools are financed by the public but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. Charters enroll about 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren; in New Hampshire, there are 29 charter schools that enroll about 3,800 of about 176,000 students.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a big backer of charter schools, and she has said her chief priority is to expand them and other alternatives to traditional public schools, which she once called “a dead end.”
Recently in her home state of Michigan, the Democratic-dominated Board of Education voted to stop a $47 million CSP grant. It did so, according to board President Casandra Ulbrich, because the board had not given the state Education Department consent to seek the grant. And, as in New Hampshire, members expressed concerns about opening new charters when school enrollment in the state has been declining for years. Michigan’s attorney general, however, overruled the vote and said the money could be disbursed.
The federal grant given this past August to New Hampshire was intended to allow the opening of 20 new charter schools. In addition, five existing charters could expand, and seven existing charters could “replicate” in other places.
The Charter School Program, which provides funding to states for the creation of charter schools and the expansion of existing ones, has awarded billions of dollars since it first started providing grants in 1995. Recent reports by the advocacy group the Network for Public Education have found that the program awarded up to $1 billion or more on charter schools that never opened or opened and then closed.
Charter supporters say the 30-year-old movement gives families a vital alternative to their neighborhood school, especially when that school is troubled. Opponents say there is little public accountability over many charters and that they drain resources from traditional school districts. Research shows that student outcomes are, overall, largely the same in charter and traditional public schools, though there are failures and exemplars in both.