Proposed Charter School Federal Funding Overhaul Sparks Opposition From New Hampshire Gov. Sununu, Ed Commissioner Edelblut

Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut are objecting to a Biden administration rule to further regulate charter school funding. The rule would not affect existing plans to expand at New Hampshire charter schools, such as CSI Charter School in Penacook. (Dana Wormald / New Hampshire Bulletin)

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New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut are rallying against a Biden administration push to add new conditions for charter school federal funding, arguing the move would be overly burdensome and make funding difficult to qualify for. 

In a letter sent April 18, Sununu joined 17 other Republican governors in opposing the new administrative rules, which are on their way to final approval. Public comment for the rules closed April 14. 

The rules are intended to overhaul a number of practices Biden and Democrats have criticized in recent years, such as the use of for-profit companies to manage the schools on behalf of nonprofits, which by law are supposed to be in charge. But the rules contain a number of other oversight mechanisms that New Hampshire Republicans say are unfair. 

The new rule change, which would apply to the federal Charter Schools Program, would not affect existing charter schools or startup schools in New Hampshire in the near future but could kick in for future projects, state officials say. 

In the letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Sununu and other governors have objected to what they call a “top-down and one-size-fits-all approach,” and have asked that the U.S. Department of Education extend the comment period and delay the implementation deadline by a year. 

“(T)he administration is choosing to place disproportionate burdens on the charter school sector, burdens that will ultimately harm the students from minority and low-income households,” the letter reads. 

New standards

Under the proposed new standards, a charter school applying for federally funded startup grants would need to show that there is a demand and a need for their school in their area through the use of a “community impact analysis.” That analysis could rely on the fact that public schools are overflowing with students, or that there is an “unmet demand” in the community. 

Sununu and other governors have called that rule overly onerous, and say it could preempt the creation of charter schools in states where enrollment is steadily dropping, like New Hampshire. 

“By focusing on the number of seats, rather than the number of ‘high-quality’ seats, the new standard fails to consider that a driving force in parents’ decisions is the desire for their child to attend a school that meets their child’s unique needs,” the letter states. “It cannot be ignored that enrollment is down in many big-city school districts due to parents choosing to leave closed or persistently failing schools.”

New Hampshire’s charter schools currently serve 4,938 of the state’s 168,628 students as of 2021 – or 2.9 percent of students – according to the Department of Education. 

The proposed rules include requirements that the applicant demonstrate that the number of new charter schools would “not exceed the number of public schools needed to accommodate the demand in the community.”

And the rules state that the federal grant program would “give priority to applicants that plan to operate or manage high-quality charter schools with racially and socioeconomically diverse student bodies.”  

Charter schools that partner with existing public schools would also be prioritized for funding, the rules added. 

The U.S. Department of Education said the rules are necessary to break through charter school organizational patterns that it argues have become too isolated

“The original proponents of charter schools anticipated that charter schools would be shaped by educators and offer opportunities for developing and sharing new instructional methods and resources that address the needs of students and families in the community,” the department stated in its introduction to the rules. “While that is the case in some charter schools, in others, teachers, parents, and community leaders have expressed concerns about not being included as active participants in charter school decision-making.” 

Edelblut joins fray

New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut jumped in with his own letter of opposition sent to Cardona this week, joining with Drew Cline, the chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education; Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education in Mississippi; and Ryan Walters, the state superintendent of education in Oklahoma. 

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, families had asked for increased educational flexibility, Edelblut and the others wrote, contending that the new funding requirements would be a step backward. 

“Our students need more public school options, not fewer, and our state legislatures have spoken strongly about their desire to do that via new and expanding public charter schools,” Edelblut and the others wrote.

Edelblut opposed the proposed requirement of the community impact analysis for new schools applying for grants, which he and the others said would allow “anonymous grant reviewers in Washington the power to veto parent, community, and state efforts to open a new school with an approved charter.”

He criticized the racial equity rules, which he argued would penalize charter schools that primarily serve minority populations. He spoke against the creation of a preference for charter schools that partner with existing traditional public schools, which he said would disadvantage charter schools that the traditional schools refuse to partner with.

And he said that the rules requiring additional reporting requirements for charter schools that accept federal funding were “punitive” and could prevent the federal funds from going to schools that haven’t built funding yet. 

Pushback to the pushback

Not all agree with Sununu’s criticism. The governor’s letter has received its own pushback from one advocacy group, Amplify New Hampshire, which argued in a statement that Sununu and Edelblut were “opposing taxpayer accountability for schools receiving public funding.”

“Taxpayers deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent, and our children deserve strong public schools where every child has the opportunity to learn and grow,” said Amplify New Hampshire Chair Jon Morgan, a former Democratic state senator, in a statement Tuesday. 

In an interview, Morgan said the federal rule is important to make sure charter schools are not created in geographic areas that don’t need them. 

“The goal here is to be providing additional accountability to taxpayers at the end of the day so that we’re not double funding resources that are already available to the community – and furthering this war on public education in this country,” Morgan said. 

New Hampshire’s charter schools do not have the same arrangements with for-profit companies that some schools have in other parts of the country, Morgan said. But he said that a hypothetical increase in the number of charter schools in the state could produce excess. And he argued that the state’s declining public school enrollments mean that those schools should get more taxpayer investment to help them reverse those declines.

“I think that we should be making sure that we are prioritizing the needs of New Hampshire students and families and parents in our exceptionally good, fourth-ranked public K through 12 education in New Hampshire,” he said. “We have a lot of capacity that we can draw upon, and expertise. Our schools are great.”

Low immediate impact

The proposed rule comes as Edelblut hopes to double the state’s charter schools. In a round of federal funding approved by the state’s Fiscal Committee and Executive Council last year – after a year of opposition from Democrats concerned about the impact to traditional public schools – the state is distributing $46 million with an intent to eventually add 27 charter schools to the state’s 29. 

So far, the state has approved new projects for eight charter schools using that money. Five are startups: Gathering Waters Chartered Public School, Heartwood Public Charter School, Lionheart Classical Academy Chartered Public School, Northeast Woodland Charter School, and Spark Academy of Advanced Technologies Charter School. Two more schools are using the funds to expand – MicroSociety Academy Charter School and The Founders Academy Public Charter School – while one, CSI Charter School, is funding a “replication” in a different area of the state. 

But the money flowing to those projects would not be affected by the new Biden administration rule, the state Department of Education said last week. Instead, the rule would affect potential applications for projects in the future.

New Hampshire charter schools do not directly apply to the federal government for federal funding, department spokeswoman Kimberly Houghton said in a statement. Instead, interested charter schools apply to the state, and the state then applies for the federal funding directly. 

Because the state cannot apply for new funds until existing funds are spent, no new charter schools would be encumbered by the rule in New Hampshire until the whole $46 million is spent, Houghton said. 

Sununu and Edelblut say the rule could still have a negative impact on the state down the road. 

“It is a certainty that the expansion of such burdensome regulations will make it more difficult – if not impossible – for independent and smaller charter schools to access federal funds,” Sununu wrote in his letter. 

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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