School Choice in the Granite State

Jan 31, 2017

At the local and national level, the movement to give families more options outside of their local district gains traction. In New Hampshire, several proposed bills would provide more funds and greater access to charter schools and other forms of education. But some worry these efforts will harm public school districts and rural counties.  


GUESTS:

  • Kate Baker - Executive Director of the New Hampshire Children's Scholarship Fund.
  • Carl Ladd - Executive Director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
  • Mel Myler - Democratic Representative from Merrimack, and minority leader of the House Education Committee.
  • Rick Johnson - Head of School at Beech Hill School, an independent middle school in Hopkinton. 

Highlights from the conversation:

School choice advocates had lots to cheer about this week on Capitol Hill and at the New Hampshire Statehouse. In Washington, the Senate Education Committee approved President Trump's education nominee, Betsy DeVos. DeVos is a longtime advocate of private school vouchers and charter schools. In the Granite State, another supporter of school choice, Frank Edelblut, is nominated to be State Education Commissioner, although he faced some tough grilling from Democrats on the Executive Council. Meanwhile, the New Hampshire House debates a slew of choice-related bills this week, from tuition tax credits to charter schools. 

Kate Baker, the executive director of the New Hampshire Children's Scholarship Fund, defines school choice as "removing those barriers, particularly for low-income families" that inhibit access to a good education, including high tuition, limited services, and geographical location. 

Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, says the state "has a rich history of school choice already"  and that public schools no longer have authority over homeschooling. 

Ladd also says that he fully supports public charter schools, especially for high-risk or low-income students, but that sometimes, these schools take funding away from local public schools:

When we talk about how charter schools are so much more cost effective, and they don't cost as much as traditional public schools: one of the reasons for that is that the traditional public school is also responsible for all of the special education costs of any special education students who attend the charter school. So their costs for special education students are not calculated into the cost of running that charter school. Yet, the public school has to handle all of the responsibilities for providing that special education service for a student offsite from their regular school.

In response, Baker says:

I think we actually agree more than we disagree, in fact...I'm just looking at it from a broader view, where I know, as a community, as a state, we want to educate all of those New Hampshire children, and I think that wherever those children are, we should work to help them.

In an earlier interview with producer Christina Phillips, Dan Vallone, director of engagement at Reaching Higher NH, which provides information about public school policy, described the challenges schools face, particularly in the north country, when they lose enrollment to charter or private schools: 

Just imagine a hypothetical community where we have an elementary school serving 300 students. They have one building, that building costs $300,000 a year to maintain. Now imagine that that school loses ten students, so now they have 290 students. They're still going to have to pay the same building costs as they did the year prior, when they had 300 students, but now, since they have ten fewer students, they have lost the state funding that went with those ten students (which is about $40,000). [This] means that the local communities need to pick up that difference, so now the local tax burden has to make up the lost of that state funding. So that's the real concern: when it comes to those programs that are going to create vouchers, or provide other pathways to private schools, when individual students leave the public school system, you're shifting the burden onto that local community to compensate.

Baker pointed out that Surry Charter School opened in response to the closure of the local public school due to declining enrollment. 

[The students] had to take a bus forty-five minutes away to get to the [nearest local public school] and they said, 'No, we're going to start our own charter school in the community in place of the traditional school'...So I see [school choice] as an answer when you have these communities solving their educational challenges and/or trying to find the best fit for the children. 

Further news and reading:

The Executive Council vote to appoint Frank Edelblut as Commissioner of Education was postponed as Governor Sununu meets with the full education board. Edelblut has long been an advocate for school choice, and homeschooled his children. Read more of our coverage on Edelblut

For more information about New Hampshire's Education Tax program, click here

There are numerous bills in the state legislature on the topic of school choice and public school funding. To read about these bills, visit the New Hampshire General Court website

NPR explained how "school choice" might work under Betsy DeVos, the current federal nominee for the Department of Education. 

Reaching Higher NH, which provides information to support public schools in NH, recently released two policy briefs that address current legislation. You can find them here.