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Most recipients of federal grants gladly line up to get their share of government dollars. However, New Hampshire legislators recently decided to turn down part of a $46 million grant from the Department of Education. The grant was to increase the number of charter schools in New Hampshire but the legislators disagreed with the aims of the program and chose not to accept the money. This is not the first time that a state government has turned down federal money in this area.
Why Charter School Grants Are Controversial
Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the agency has been promoting an aggressive agenda when it comes to charter schools. This type of education is a favorite of the conservative establishment that firmly believes in school choice and alternatives to the traditional public school model in operation in the U.S. for so long. For conservatives, charter schools and issues of school choice are a manifestation of freedom.
On the other side of the aisle, liberals typically oppose charter schools and school choice because they believe in the public school system. In fact, surveys show that over 80 percent of liberals disapprove of charter schools. Democrats have turned against charter schools in large numbers in recent years in part because teachers' unions do not support them.
Liberals are also concerned that charter schools take away much-needed funding from the public school system and weaken it. In addition, liberals are also suspicious of the fact that charter schools are operated as for-profit enterprises since they have a deep mistrust of things such as privately operated schools and prisons. In states across the country, Democrats have won multiple levels of state office pledging to slow or halt the growth of charter schools.
Why New Hampshire Rejected $10 Million from the Federal Government
In the case of New Hampshire, the federal grant was a subject of pitched debate within the state. New Hampshire is a case of divided government as the state closely straddles the partisan divide in this country and is mostly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The state's governor is a Republican, but the legislature is controlled by Democrats.
This particular grant was to allow the opening of 20 new charter schools in the state. In addition, the grant would allow for the expansion of existing charter schools. Charter schools have not necessarily been popular in New Hampshire, certainly not as much as they have been in other states where there are waiting lists.
Here, the news was made when a committee of the state legislature voted to table the grant and refuse to accept the money. Democrats had seized control of the state legislature in the last election and were concerned about the impact of charter schools on the state's public schools. New Hampshire has an aging population and the state's public school enrollment has been in decline.
One other major concern was that the grant would have also required state investment alongside the federal government money. Given that such a small percentage of New Hampshire students attend charter schools, the legislators questioned the prudence of accepting the grant. Some studies estimated that the state would need to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next several years to accommodate the construction and operation of these charter schools.
The decision sparked a heated debate at what would have otherwise been a sedate meeting of a legislative committee. There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate and they were on display at the standing-room-only meeting.
States are not obligated to accept grants from the federal government. This is not the first time that a state has turned down federal grant money in the area of charter schools. In fact, DeVos' home state of Michigan did something similar to New Hampshire when it turned away a charter school grant earlier this year.
It is unclear what will happens to these funds now that New Hampshire turned down a block of the funding. The agency has not said whether it will hold the money should things change in New Hampshire of whether it will cancel the grant entirely. Proponents of charter schools are trying to persuade the Department of Education to at least allow them some time to try to work with the legislature and answer their concerns. Based on fiscal law, the agency may not be able to hold the money for New Hampshire forever.
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