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Betsy DeVos Gave a State Charter School Grants. Lawmakers Have Said No Thanks, Twice

It's pretty obvious by now that many Democrats are growing increasingly uncomfortable supporting charter schools. But twice in nearly the past 30 days, a group of New Hampshire legislators have taken the unusual step of essentially rejecting federal charter school grants  awarded by the U.S. Department of Education last year. 

Here's the story: In August, the Education Department awarded New Hampshire about $46 million over five years to expand charter schools in the state. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, and state Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, a Sununu appointee, welcomed the news about the Charter School Program grants. But Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, and that's where pushback to the grants has come from.

Although the grant money comes from the federal government, in this situation the state legislature's joint fiscal committee signs off on whether the state education department can begin disbursing the grants. After the grants were awarded, the committee tabled an initial scheduled vote on releasing the money. Then lawmakers asked the state education department a series of questions about the impact of the grants and the process that went into applying for them. (The questions and the department's answers can be found here.) Those answers apparently did not satisfy a sufficient number of lawmakers, because on Dec. 13 the committee voted not to allow the department to start distributing the money. 

The vote was 7-3, with all Democrats voting it it down and all Republicans voting in favor of it. Democrats made the argument that once the grant support for the expansion of new charter schools runs out after five years, the state would be on the hook for keeping the charter schools up and running without the grants. 

"We know this grant would cost the state tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions out of the education fund in the future," said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Democrat and the committee's chairwoman, said last month to WMUR, a New Hampshire TV station, after that vote. (We reached out to Wallner for additional comment, and we'll update this piece if we hear back.)

The state affiliate of the National Education Association applauded this decision. "Cashing Betsy DeVos' $46 million check obligated New Hampshire taxpayers to coming up with new long-term funding for years to come, jeopardizing our neighborhood public schools," said Megan Tuttle, the affiliate's president, said in a statement on the association's website after that vote. "We support efforts to increase charter accountability and slow the diversion of resources from neighborhood public schools to charters." 

Last week, the same vote took place again, with the same result. One Democratic lawmaker said that if the state education department is applying for grants specifically for charter schools, it should also seek out additional federal aid to traditional public schools. 

There are 28 charter schools in the state serving 3,800 students, in addition to a virtual charter school, and there are an additional 1,300 students on the waiting list to get into charters, according to the state education department. 

There's also a connection here between the situation in New Hampshire—the state with the first primary election in the 2020 presidential race—and the national political climate. The federal Charter School Grant program, which exists in large part to help charters expand, has been sharply criticized by two Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Both have said they would shut it down, in so many words. 

'Education Through Innovation'

Edelblut, the state education commissioner, said in an interview that the state is required by law to apply for those grants. He also said the argument from Democratic lawmakers that the state will incur long-term and burdensome financial obligations for these charter schools is inaccurate, since the grants cover start-up costs and not operational expenses. 

"The cost of educating New Hampshire students falls to new Hampshire taxpayers. We are going to be paying to educate these students one way or the other," said Edelblut, who said that on a per-student basis, charter school students costs significantly less to educate than their peers in traditional public schools. "If there is a cost concern, then one would absolutely want to embrace this opportunity ... for education innovation through grants. And on a long-term basis, we're 'on the hook' for far less to educate those students than we would be otherwise."

Charter schools can be formed by groups of parents and teachers well as school districts, the commissioner said, but can't be managed by for-profit entities. That means, in his view, that there's less of the tension that exists in other states where traditional public schools and districts a priori feel shut out of the charter community. And these charter schools would be eligible for federal grants, such as Title I, just like public schools, he added. 

But in an interview, Tuttle rejected the notion that charter schools wouldn't constitute a long-term, additional cost for the state. And ultimately, she said it would mean that traditional public schools would lose out on aid to charters, which, she said, don't have the same accountability and oversight measures as their counterparts. Tuttle said the New Hampshire union doesn't oppose charters in all cases.

"We need to fix what's going on with the current charter schools in New Hampshire," Tuttle said. She added that as far as the grants' aim of expanding the number of charters in the state goes, "Maybe in business that's an OK model. But I'm not gambling my children's future, the children of New Hampshire's future, on, 'Well hopefully it's going to work.'"

She added that her union shared its views with lawmakers who asked about the grants before the initial vote tabling a decision on releasing the grant money. 

So what's the next step? Edelblut says the feds haven't given him a deadline for when the state either has to start disbursing the money or send it back to Washington, but that he's going to continue working with lawmakers to free up the money. 

The state education department, not the legislature, is the federal grantee in this case. If New Hampshire's education department and lawmakers can't work out a deal, the money would revert to the U.S. Department of Education. And New Hampshire would forfeit any claim to the grant money going forward if that happens. . 

Is there precedent for this kind of situation? Former Virginia Gov. George F. Allen, a Republican, initially rejected federal Goals 2000 grants during the Clinton administration because of his concerns about federal intrusion into education; he later agreed to take the grants when lawmakers amended the law governing to allow the money to be spent on education technology. 

But Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said it's the first time he's seen a state reject federal charter school grants that it had been awarded in this way. He acknowledged that New Hampshire's charter school sector has grown slowly over the years, but said the state has done a good job satisfying some common concerns about charters and said operators there are interested in expanding.

"A key piece of this grant is actually trying to give some money to districts so that they can innovate, probably with small schools," Ziebarth said. "They've made a pretty good case for demand from a variety of angles."


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