House-Senate budget writers say no to charter school expansion - again

A group of public charter school students look on as the Legislative Fiscal Committee for the second straight month turns down a five-year, $46 million grant to double the number of schools in the state. The same panel had tabled the first request for the state to accept this federal grant.

CONCORD — A legislative budget oversight committee, for the third time in the past three months, set aside a federal grant to nearly double the number of charter schools in New Hampshire.

With a few dozen charter school students looking on, the Legislative Fiscal Committee voted, 7-3, to reject the grant on Friday.

The same request was turned down last month, and the previous month the first attempt to move it forward was tabled.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut defended bringing back the identical item that would create the first year’s installment of a five-year, $46 million federal grant.

“The reason I am back in an unprecedented way in bringing the same Fiscal Committee item is I believe that the grant was not completely understood and some of the comments today reinforce that belief,” Edleblut said.

The education chief pushed back on claims the money could only be used for new charter schools.

Edelblut read a letter from the principal of Oyster River High School that he’d like to use these dollars to create a new charter school program within the existing public school.

“These are innovation funds available to our traditional schools looking to come up with new programs to serve more students,” Edelblut said.

“Yes these funds can be accessed by our traditional public schools.”

He also introduced a June 2016 letter to the Obama administration by then-Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan urging the federal Department of Education to approve this grant.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said he’d support a grant to give more help to existing charter schools that are struggling but creating new ones is not productive.

Feltes said he’s worked with both parties on legislation to support existing charter schools, relax restrictions on how money can be spent and created a program officer in Edelblut’s agency to assist charter school administrators.

“We have done that in a bipartisan way. This grant doesn’t do that,” Feltes said.

State Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, lashed out at the committee following its action.

“The Democrats are again proving that they have put the priority of the teachers’ unions ahead of of the students,” Weyler said.

Sen. Lou D’Alleandro, D-Manchester, protested that remark.

‘What we should do is shore up what we have. The charter schools get significant public support and I think everyone should recognize that,” D’Allesandro said.

“To throw this into a partisan environment is not acceptable.”

Later in the meeting, Feltes proposed a policy that would prevent any department head from resubmitting any item once it’s been rejected.

Committee Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said she struggled with deciding if she had the unilateral power to hold Edleblut’s repeat request and decided she did not.

“To start the process here where items that get denied just keep coming back and back and back is just a waste of all of our time and it is not something I want to see started,” Wallner said.

But Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, said the idea was poorly conceived.

“This has significant issues that will make most of what we do here illegal. I think it was written by one person in anger,” she said referring to Feltes, who is a Democratic candidate for governor in 2020.

“We would lock ourselves out of doing most of our work.”

Feltes decided to withdraw his own request and perhaps bring it back in the months to come.

After the meeting, Edelblut, a 2016 Republican candidate for governor, said he hasn’t given up.

“Do I look like someone who gives up that easily? We’ll be back,” Edelblut added.

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