Last Friday, hearing news that the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee tabled an enormous $46M opportunity to further education in our state, was both troubling and heartbreaking for a number of reasons – primarily for children and families but also overloaded educators.
I am a constituent, corporate professional, volunteer educational advocate and most importantly, a mother of four children, three of whom have developmental (non-intellectual) disabilities.
As a parent who wasn’t given a manual on their child at birth, I quickly learned more than I have ever wanted to know about developmental disabilities.
As the children entered district public school, they faced the challenge of navigating until learning disabilities and developmental disabilities such as autism were fully diagnosed. For most of our children with these conditions, it is not something avoidable through early intervention but becomes more and more apparent with every year the child develops, or the lack thereof. The point where it becomes painfully obvious is in the elementary years. Autism especially, truly is a puzzle with pieces that do not fit, and this often includes the environment in which children learn.
Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders). You most likely have a relative or grandchild who is neurodiverse.
As my children struggled from entering school forward, I discovered that the neurodiverse population has increased in huge numbers in NH alone. Ten years ago, we had about 1 autistic child to every 250 children Now, that ratio is closer to 1 in 30, or perhaps even lower, 1-25 as it is more common in boys.
Having now seen the common features of the spectrum with my three, I can sadly admit that I had my doubts about the validity of these neurodiverse conditions, but they are very real, whether “high” or “low” functioning – they impact every single day of our and our children’s lives.
For many reasons, and especially neurodiversity of the school populations, schools are not what they were ten or twenty years ago. They are not even what they were five years ago, because neurodiversity is on the rise. The school environment right now is equal to that of a submarine that has malfunctioned and is under immense, crushing pressure, with gauges spinning out of control.
The cracks are showing with feedback from and about teachers and student morale is at an all-time low, especially and sadly in elementary grades. If we do not release the pressure happening for a number of reasons, further down the list, funding, the system will collapse. We are not far from that. Even worse, we have already lost students in our state – most of whom had undiagnosed or under-supported learning disabilities and or autism, because they lost all joy and hope in the school environment.
District public schools are not really to blame. Nor is funding. What is inexcusable, however, is ignoring the fact that alternative educational methods must be considered to prevent the collapse, and even worse, lost lives and futures.
According to former US Secretary of Education Rod Paige, alternative learning environments can be a huge asset.
“Room to be innovative, hold them accountable for results, and let parents decide if they meet the needs of their children—are perfectly aligned with the historic No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which also focuses on accountability for results in return for more flexibility, and with providing more options for parents than ever before. One of the promises of charter schools is that they can serve as laboratories of innovation—they can be public education’s “R&D” arm. Because they have greater autonomy than traditional public schools, and since they tend to attract pioneering educators, they can try out new approaches to education that, if proven effective, can be transplanted back into the larger public education system. It is in this spirit that we highlight eight of the most successful charter schools in the United States.”
As you look at the various charter schools across the state, from Montessori, STEM, fine arts, supporting at-risk students and more, it is undeniable that they are taking some pressure off districts. One of the most striking features of these schools is their diversity. As far as fiscal responsibility, a primary rationale for the introduction of charter schools is accountability.
In theory, because funding follows students, if charter schools cannot recruit and retain students, they will lose funding and ultimately fiscal viability. To continue an argument over undermining the larger system is not logical because these institutions are apples to oranges and really cannot be compared. There are no funding mandates aside from the small amount of money that follows the student, the rest being kept with the district to benefit from.
According to a report by the Education Policy Research Unit of Arizona State University, charters have to fend for themselves – purchasing, building, maintaining property and have been successful in our state finding alternative methods of funding. Additionally, charter schools can apply for more federal funding for start-up and implementation, and also for the dissemination of their ideas. While the possibility of additional federal monies does not make charter schools less costly to operate, it provides an opportunity not afforded traditional public schools.
On the flip side, charter schools tend to be small and lack economies of scale that districts have. For example, when charter schools must have specialized staff such as a certified administrator or a school nurse, the resulting cost is distributed over a smaller number of students. Because of the actual “charter” contract, these schools are well-aware of money received and need to look elsewhere for funding – which they do quite well.
School is not what it once was – and that’s ok. What is inexcusable and unacceptable is overlooking the pain caused by an overloaded and rigid system that is causing teachers, families and children to be miserable. Allowing for diversity is not admitting defeat or caving to the “other side” – it’s doing what is best for NH’s children and educators also. Please reconsider the $46M grant, your constituents require an appropriate education that at present cannot be fully achieved.
Edited and reformatted/Steve MacDonald – from a Letter to Legislators on the New Hampshire Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee by Katherine Shea.