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Charter schools vs. the school choice movement: who speaks for charter schools in New Hampshire?

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Charter, voucher and anti-Common Core advocates (mostly the same people) teamed up to mobilize charter school parents and others in opposition to my nomination to the State Board of Education.  I’ve now been confirmed but the debate itself highlighted again the difference between the charter schools and the school choice movement.

Ronayne in the Concord Monitor: Education a major issue this year?

I’m mostly not using to comment on my own appointment to the New Hampshire SBOE, but there are a couple of points made in Kathleen Ronayne’s detailed rumination on state education policy as a political issue yesterday that are worth highlighting.  You should read the whole thing, but I noted these bits in particular:

A firestorm of controversy surrounds the nomination, with executive councilors saying they received a flood of phone calls and emails from concerned parents. State board chairman Tom Raffio said he hasn’t seen this kind of political activity around a nominee on his seven years on the board.


But, Banfield said, Hassan’s nomination of Duncan to the board and the Democratic councilors’ approval served as salt in the wound for parents who already felt their voices were ignored when members of the House Education Committee continued to back Common Core. Time will tell whether these parents continue to mobilize.

Most of us, of course, are parents.  So the attractive “parents mobilize” narrative is always a defensible one.  But readers should understand that opposition to my nomination was not spontaneous parent combustion.

Credit for promoting whatever concern and political mobilization there was should properly go to a core group of “school choice” advocates who support vouchers, home schooling and charters and oppose the Common Core.  The overlap probably isn’t 100% and some advocates have different priorities, but they generally flock together against anything government does.  And you’ll find pretty much the same legislators supporting all four issues.

The point is, don’t swallow the “parents mobilize” bit whole.  It’s the school choice folks at work.

The Ronayne piece goes on:

To be clear: Lots of lawmakers and experienced educators think Duncan is a great choice for the board and say his record has been mischaracterized.

New Hampshire has 22 charter schools, and both Hassan and the board of education have agreed that charter schools – which are public – are an important part of New Hampshire’s education landscape. The real concern for Duncan and Democrats is over whether “public” money should go toward financing private and religious schools. This policy was adopted by the Legislature, not the state board.

“Some of the charter school advocates were linking that case with, ‘This means he is against charter schools,’ ” said Raffio, chairman of the state board. “It’s an apple and an orange. It’s an apple and kumquat really.”

Mr. Raffio is reflecting a view he and I share but school choice advocates do not.  Ms. Ronayne’s summary of the differences between charters and vouchers is accurate, but some New Hampshire advocates, like Charlie Arlinghaus, nonetheless conflate the issues under the “school choice” rubric.

Charlie Arlinghaus says it IS all about school choice

I emailed Mr. Arlinghaus to make that point a year ago (Feb 4, 2013) in response to a column of his in the Union Leader:


Do you really think charters are under attack in NH?  I know the advocates have adopted that posture, but I don’t actually think there’s evidence that the board of ed – or DOE for that matter – are anti-charter.  (You should ask Chris Sununu about his experience trying to bridge the gap.) As far as I know, NH charters are supported across the political spectrum.
It does become a different matter when you put the political overlay on it: the fix for bad unions/bad schools is to charterize the public school system.  That’s not a parody, as you probably know.  But that’s not the motivation for the North Country charters, for instance, that strive to reach at-risk kids. And I think others are committed to their educational missions as well.
There’s going to be a lot to work out this year about charters and funding, but I don’t think it advances the effort to politicize the discussion by lumping charters with vouchers as the national school choice movement does.
Best regards,
Mr. Arlinghaus responded the next day.  He disagreed:
Hi Bill, sorry for the delay writing back. I do think charters are under attack. I’m fairly sure no one is advocating closing charter schools that are open but I do honestly believe that at least some segment is eager that no more be opened and would prefer to place significant obstacles in their path. I’m well aware of the funding situation, why the language in HB2 was written the way it was, and what the authors of that language meant when they said the charters could spend more with the approval of fiscal. I think some initial public discussions of the language were misleading….
Most advocates of charters that I know and advocates of other forms of school choice share a very similar motivation: in both instances they want to provide additional alternatives for more children. They really do believe that kids would benefit from additional choices. I suppose that lumping charters and school choice in the sense you mean is wrong (and certainly there is not a 1:1 overlap between the two groups or even a set/subset relationship) but the lion’s share of supporters of choice supporters regard both programs as two means to the same end: providing more children with more alternatives.
Hope you’re doing well

But do school choice advocates speak for parents and schools?

Mr. Arlinghaus says that virtually all charter advocates support vouchers as well under the banner of school choice.  That is true of Ms. Banfield but is it true of the parents Ms. Banfield says she’s speaking speaking for?  There must be parents who see their charters as a political statement, but there must be many others who just see their schools as a good educational fit for their child.  (They will all, of course, respond to emails saying their schools are threatened.)

So Mr. Arlinghaus is not speaking for charter school parents.  But I don’t know that he is speaking for charter schools either.  Some charter school heads are more concerned about how to meet the funding needs of their schools than about expanding a charter school movement.  Does that make them part of the “some segment” Mr. Arlinghaus says is eager that no more charters be opened?

Candidate for U.S. Senate, Jim Rubens, credits himself as “brave and clear-headed” for supporting charters as an alternative to failing public schools.

Former state senator, voucher supporter and U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rubens falls right into line in a May 12 Portsmouth Herald oped, positioning charters as an alternative to our failing public school system where, after “…continuously increasing property taxes and wave after wave of top-down federal reforms…far too many of New Hampshire’s children are still not reaching their full potential.”

He goes on to make the convenient but factually incorrect claim that the “teachers’ unions, education establishment, and…William Duncan” have resisted the 22 charter schools currently operating.

When he visits charters, he sees the same dedicated educators and appreciative students I do when I visit, but he casts their commitment as testimony to his own “bravery and clear-headedness,” demonstrated by his promotion charters as an alternative to our failing public schools.

I see that same dedication as a commitment to education.  When charter advocates like Mr. Rubens complain that all supporters of public education are against them, they leave themselves with a narrow base of support for charters.

The future role of New Hampshire charter schools: competitive replacement for or a cooperative supplement to district schools?

It seems to me that there’s much broader support for charters in their role as an integral component of public education than as incursions from a competitive school choice movement.   There’s not enough general fund money around to build a second school system to compete with the one we’ve got.

The sense I get from New Hampshire policy makers is that charters should continue to play an important but supplementary role in New Hampshire public education.   There could be durable legislative support for that.

But charter advocates seem to line up behind Mr. Arlinghaus’ school choice idea, or Mr. Rubens’ “alternative to failed public schools” idea.  That divides us politically.  That’s why Rep. Ken Weyler (R-Kingston) failed when he pitted charters against district schools by proposing to use adequacy funds to pay for expanding charter enrollment.  That will not make sense to Dover or Salem or the 41 other growing New Hampshire communities that are “capped” $17 million short of what the current adequacy formula would give them.

No wonder charter schools don’t “feel the love.”

If charter advocates continue to position charters together with vouchers as a competitive alternative to district schools, actual charter schools (though not the advocates) will continue to struggle to keep their heads above water in the ebb and flow of state politics.




  1. wgersen says:

    Good luck, Bill. You’re a great choice for the State Board… you have a nuanced view of education, which is what your opponents lack. The “chartersGood” “choiceGood” “public schoolsBad” dichotomies work well for politicians and editorial writers but have no bearing whatsoever on how charters operate in NH. Hopefully you and your colleagues on the State Board will get that message out!

  2. Bill, I suggest that we consider all school’s community board members must have credentials that qualify them to make the local decisions. That we have Education specialists as well as Financial specialists, and that they all have expertise in the each of the divisions in each of the fields needed. The
    community must pick QUALIFIED board members !

  3. What does Bill qualify for? From what I have read he clearly represents the rubber stamp approval of whatever a group of politically elected Federal and State politicians representing the most votes for their election and the money crowd from people like the Gates foundation who represent the education book publishing industry and other corporate industries that will benefit. Please somebody explain to me how any of these people are qualifies financial knowledge or education knowledge of overriding what local school community members who represent the parents and children of the most motivated top 30% who have to compete to create the top STEM careers in the world. Do they have to have their education watered down so that all the politically correct politician “Gapologists” close some gap by representing the least able and least motivated people in our country? Is this what your town’s community wants?

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