Written by Ember Reichgott Junge
All eyes are on New Hampshire for the Democratic presidential race. As the candidates barnstorm the state, I wonder how they would answer this question:
Would you agree with New Hampshire Democratic lawmakers who recently voted to reject $46 million in federal funding over five years to the New Hampshire Department of Education to double the number of charter schools in the state?
Last November, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, with a Democratic majority, voted to table the $46 million federal grant—the largest in the country—which would have meant $10.1 million for charter public schools in New Hampshire this biennium. New Hampshire has just 29 charter public schools. The grant would have created 20 new charter schools, seven replications of “high-quality” charter schools and five expansions.
To my New Hampshire legislative colleagues: may I testify before your committee about how these federal grants came to be?
As documented in the National Charter Schools Founders Library, these highly coveted start-up grants came about in the mid-1990’s under the leadership of U.S. Senator David Durenberger (R-MN), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), and with the support of Committee Chair Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MS). They saw these funds as essential to creating more opportunities for students in public education. They understood that starting a charter public school took enormous commitment from parents and teachers in community to create new and innovative public school choices for their families, and that start-up help would increase their chance of success.
It is important to note these start-up funds would not have passed Congress without strong bipartisan support, and strong public support from President Bill Clinton. In addition, the federal Charter School Program enjoyed its largest funding increase under President Barack Obama.
The objections offered by New Hampshire Democrats?
First, they said that charter public schools receive additional state funding that traditional public schools do not. While that’s true, the funding is to replace the property tax revenue that district schools receive, but charter public schools do not.
Second, they asked, who will fund the new charter schools at the end of five years? These students will receive the same state funding as do other public school students as funding follows the student to their public school choice.
What is most ironic is that the 2019 assessments in New Hampshire showed a higher percentage of public charter school students reaching proficiency in 7 out of 8 categories, including a 13 percent advantage in 11th grade science, according to New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. He continued, “Public charter schools have consistently outperformed traditional public schools in New Hampshire for the past five years, despite receiving less taxpayer funding and often serving an at-risk student population.”
The Commissioner added that the grant would allow both public charter and traditional district schools to try new ways to reach students most at risk.
Sometimes we must recall the lessons of the past to inform the future of chartering. The federal Charter School Program is one of the few bipartisan agreements that has survived Congress for over twenty years, transforming the lives of thousands of charter public school students across the country, many of them of color.
I hope the presidential candidates and legislators of all parties will learn from the past to inform the future of public education for all.
Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge is author of Minnesota’s 1991 first-in-nation charter school law and the award-winning book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story”. She is an international education policy leader, consultant, and spokesperson for charter public schools having presented in 35 states, Guam, Canada and India. She was founding board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, founding board chair of Level Up Academy, a Minnesota charter school, and is current board member of Charter Schools Development Corporation. She was inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame in 2008, and received the Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award from Democrats for Education Reform in 2012.