Valley News – Enrollments at charter schools in New Hampshire are up 14% over the past year

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on New Hampshire Bulletin.

Enrollments at New Hampshire’s charter public schools rose 13.89% last school year, according to new figures from the Department of Education, even as public school enrollments overall declined.

The department reported that as of the start of the 2022-23 school year, 4,912 students were enrolled in the state’s 28 charter schools. This is 599 more students than in the previous school year, when there were 4,313 students.

The numbers provided to the Bulletin represent students from kindergarten through 12th grade and do not count participants in the state’s Virtual Learning Academy charter school.

The surge in attendance comes as the “school choice” movement has gained traction in New Hampshire in recent years, fueled in part by distance learning during COVID-19 and conservative criticism of public school curricula. And it fits with an ever-increasing number of families using public funds for private schools under the Education Freedom Account program created in 2021.

Charter schools are alternative versions of public schools, funded in part by government grants and in part by outside funding such as private grants and donations. Charter schools are not subject to as many curriculum regulations as traditional public schools and can accept students from across the state.

The increase in charter school enrollments comes even as student enrollment in New Hampshire’s public schools fell 1.1%, the department reported earlier this month. This decline follows a decline since 2002, largely due to a declining birth rate in the state.

As enrollment in traditional public schools has steadily declined, state legislators and policymakers have increased the number of charter schools in New Hampshire in recent years.

In early 2021, the Republican-led Legislature and Executive Council approved the first tranche of a $46 million federal grant that would help the state double the number of charter schools over five years, reversing previous Democrat opposition. The grant is intended to add 29 new charter schools to the state’s then-existing 27. Democrats had opposed the expansion, arguing that it would cut funding sources for traditional public schools; Republicans had argued it would give lower-income students more opportunities.

The State Board of Education, whose members are nominated by the governor and approved by the executive board, approved three additional charter schools in time for the 2022-23 school year: Coastal Waters Chartered Public School, which opened in Jefferson with 129 students; Heartwood Charter School in Jefferson, which had 31 students on opening day; and the Lionheart Classical Academy in Peterborough, which began its year with 155 students.

The remainder of the 599 student increase came from some charter schools, which have dramatically increased their enrollments since last school year. Windham Academy Charter School, for example, grew from 255 to 305 students last school year, and Founders Academy Charter School in Manchester grew from 354 to 428 students.

Many charter schools have seen consistent enrollments this year, while some have seen modest declines.

And one charter school, the Cocheco Academy of the Arts in Dover, closed permanently last year. This school had 39 students at the start of the 2021/22 school year.