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The Legislature should trust educators and parents
Op-ed column from Frank Edelblut in the New Hampshire Union Leader about public charter schools in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire Union Leader
By Frank Edelblut
November 17, 2019
From its inception, the idea of public charter schools has been to free public education from the burden of excessive and restrictive rules that prevent educators from being effective.
Back in 1988, the Citizens League of Minnesota published a report, “Charter Schools=Choices for Educators + Quality for All Students.” Elaborating on this vision, the report states, “Many teachers believe they know how to do a better job of educating their students. But they need to be freed from the constraints of an excessively rigid school-management system to do it.”
The concept is to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that unleashes the innovative power of educators and parents to bring students to great outcomes and put them on a path to bright futures. The Citizens League report states it this way:
“It is the process of schooling and not the building itself that will differentiate a chartered school from a conventional one. The chartered school concept recognizes that different children learn in different ways and at different speeds, and teachers and schools should adapt to children's needs rather than requiring children to adapt to the standard system.”
The principles of the original Citizens League report are embedded in New Hampshire’s charter school law and culture. It was in pursuit of these principles that the New Hampshire Department of Education sought, and won, a $46 million federal grant to build on the success of charter schools by doubling the number of public charter schools in the Granite State. Unfortunately, the broad bipartisan vision for public charter schools in New Hampshire has been lost to many. Last Friday, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted along party lines to table the first round of this federal funding for public charter schools.
There is a lot of misinformation about charters schools. Every New Hampshire charter school is a public school. This means they are open and accessible to any student who applies, and at no cost to the family. Yet at the Fiscal Committee meeting, an experienced State Senator argued that public charter schools were not public. Perhaps this confusion has led to the breakdown of the long-held bipartisan consensus on the value of charters schools in New Hampshire.
There are several ways to charter a public school in New Hampshire. Three groups of individuals; a qualified nonprofit organization, two or more New Hampshire certified teachers, or 10 or more parents, may submit an application. These groups may seek approval from a local school board or from the State Board of Education. Currently, PACE Career Academy in Allenstown is the only school chartered through a local district. The rest have been chartered through the State Board.
Many of New Hampshire’s public charter schools are led by New Hampshire educators who have embraced the Citizens League aspiration of “Choices for Educators.” We often talk about choice for parents and students, but we should recognize the value of choice for educators as well.
Thirty years ago, the Citizens League recognized that children learn in different ways and at different speeds and that it is the responsibility of the teachers and schools to adapt to the child rather than have the child adapt to the school. This is another concept firmly embedded throughout New Hampshire education rule and law. RSA 193-H states, “Students best learn at their own pace as they master content and skills, allowing them to advance when they demonstrate the desired level of mastery rather than progressing based on a predetermined amount of seat time in a classroom will assure that students will reach college and career readiness.”
The State Board of Education plays an important role in chartering schools. In addition to evaluating a proposed charter for a quality education, the State Board also evaluates each application for creativity and innovation. The goal is not to simply replicate the traditional public school, but to come up with something to meet the unique needs of students and educators, or, as the Citizens League puts it, “to be different in the way it delivers education.”
New Hampshire is a leader in education innovation. We innovate because of the high value we place on education for our children – all children – including disadvantaged and at risk students. The $46 million public charter school grant is targeted to provide new ways to teach at-risk students. With just one in five economically-disadvantaged students reaching proficiency, we need to find better ways to give these kids a chance at a bright future.
I hope that when the Fiscal Committee meets in December, it will recognize the potential that charter schools hold for at-risk and disadvantaged students who are not being served by the status quo. I hope they will value educator choice and family choice, and approve the $46 million investment in education innovation that we fought so hard to win for our students.
Frank Edelblut is Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.