CONCORD — A new Department of Education fiscal analysis of the proposed $46 million public charter school grant concludes that a sharp drop in traditional school enrollment over the next decade will be driven mainly by demographic trends rather than students leaving public schools.
According to the report from Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, doubling the number of charter schools over the next 10 years could translate into at least $60 million in savings for local taxpayers as 4,000 students leave traditional public schools.
Edelblut’s report points to studies that warn declines in enrollments not related to charter schools will be at least 24,000 by 2030 — and could approach double that figure.
“If the visceral reaction is how are we going to manage a declining student enrollment due to public charter schools, the answer is you are going to have to deal with this issue regardless of this grant,” Edelblut said.
“Declining enrollments are coming and all local officials should be developing plans to manage and control costs to deal with this new reality.”
The grant, from the Trump administration, would pay for 20 new charter schools, the expansion of five schools and the replication of seven existing charter schools.
The first installment of that grant is back on the agenda of the Legislative Fiscal Committee, which met Friday morning for the fourth time in the past four months.
They turned it down again, all Democratic members voting in the 7-3 majority to table the request.
The Democratic-led budget oversight panel has now tabled the grant twice and rejected it outright twice.
The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday will take testimony on a bill (SB 747) all 10 Senate Republicans have authored to put the entire Legislature on record regarding the grant.
“This will allow me to give more of an explanation but I recognize this issue has become quite partisan,” said Edelblut, who narrowly lost the 2016 Republican primary to now-Gov. Chris Sununu.
Edelblut said the report responds to many of the criticisms the grant has faced.
“I am trying to be as transparent as I can. I know the report is a little bit wonky, but it is trying to answer a lot of questions that people have had,” Edelblut said.
This report clearly responds to analysis from Reaching Higher New Hampshire, which supports traditional public schools.
The group has warned the charter school grant could cost the state an additional $57 million to $104 million in its first 10 years.
The same organization found in its analysis of 20 of the state’s charter schools that at least 1,083 of the 4,025 seats available went unfilled in the 2018-2019 school year.
Reaching Higher New Hampshire also maintains state funding alone often doesn’t cover operating costs for these charter schools, which make them unsustainable.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said the new report doesn’t change his view that the panel should keep rejecting this grant.
“We need to support our public schools and the successful existing charter schools, work on the over 1,000 open spots in existing charter schools, and protect New Hampshire taxpayers. This fiscally irresponsible grant will cause our already record high property taxes to continue to increase, which is unacceptable,” Feltes said in a statement.
The Trump administration’s federal budget released last week calls for the elimination of the charter school grant program in 2021, in favor of rolling all programs into an education block grant to the states.
The budget stresses there will be enough in that block grant to meet the five-year commitment to New Hampshire and to other states that have received charter school grants.
Edelblut said block grants would be better both for taxpayers and for public schools at the local level.
“It is basically saying to states, ‘OK, you best know where your program dollars should go,’ “ Edelblut said.