As voters ushered Republican after Republican into office last fall, talk centered on reining in spending and creating jobs.
But the influx of massive Republican majorities also opened the door wide for charter school expansion in the Granite State. The idea of new public schools with a focus on innovation and project-based learning might sound like the type of thing Democrats would be all for, but it’s the GOP, locally and nationally, that has been in support of charter schools historically.
Still, the Obama administration and in particular Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made the establishment and improvement of charter schools a goal. Matthew Southerton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the Obama administration’s support of charter schools. Many federal charter school initiatives are geared toward urban schools, but Southerton said there are needs in the smaller states and rural areas as well.
“They need the same access to good education as anyone else,” Southerton said.
Several pieces of legislation in New Hampshire would help expand the current array of charter schools in New Hampshire. Senate Bill 82 would essentially acknowledge the charter school pilot program has been successful — it would end the moratorium on charter schools that has been in place for three years and would make the state Board of Education the permanent authorization body for future charter schools.
The state endorsed a 10-year pilot program in 2003, which allowed the state to authorize up to 20 charter schools. The state has 10 charter schools. The schools provide an opportunity for teachers to try new things. Students must take all the same standardized tests as traditional public school students; in some cases, they take more. Charter schools are supposed to be designed to operate on 80 percent of the budget of a traditional public school. Charter schools in New Hampshire have open enrollment, though there is an application process, Southerton said.
“We’re really hoping to see more schools open up,” Southerton said.
The state also recently received federal funding — $11.6 million — for five years to help open new charter schools, like the Mill Falls Charter School in Manchester, which will center on project-based learning, where students master skills through projects, Southerton said.
“It’s going to be a great school with a lot of diversity,” Southerton said.
Another big step forward for charter school proponents would be House Bill 505, which would provide some funding to charter schools from the state’s school building aid program. As it stands now, public schools can apply to the state for funding for building projects but charter schools cannot. (The school building aid program is currently undergoing a study to see if reforms are needed in the funding formula, as it is a particularly fast-growing budget area.) Under the legislation, charter schools wouldn’t receive as much funding help as traditional public schools, but it would be significant, Southerton said.
Southerton said opening more charter schools is feasible — there is a marketplace for it.
The state saw its first locally authorized charter school open last month. There are also schools in Harrisville, Conway, and Pembroke on the way, Southerton said.
What’s causing this movement?
“After the elections is what happened,” Southerton said. “The election is what caused this.”
Republicans have always been more supportive of charter schools, Southerton said, especially nationally. In fact, he said even when Democrats are looking to support charter schools, they find out quickly there are political hoops to jump through — usually too many to make it worth it.
“When I meet with active Democrats...if they want to talk about opening charter schools, they are absolutely blown away by the politics in opening a public school,” Southerton said. “Even if a Democrat agrees, that’s just absolutely the case, unfortunately.”
Southerton said last year the state has made charter schools a less partisan issue. Some officials are genuinely concerned about fiscal stability on the charter school front. Some have been concerned with so-called “double-dipping,” in which the state pays for a student twice — once in his or her home district, and again at a prorated amount at a charter school, as is particularly the case with the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School.
Locally authorized charters
Southerton has noticed that school districts and charter school proponents are beginning to work together.
“Whereas before they were sort of mortal enemies,” Southerton said, “now they can work together to find if there may be a place for charter schools.”
One hurdle for locally authorized charter schools is that school districts are concerned out-of-district students will enroll without the district’s receiving any additional funding. Current legislation would fix that, to some extent, by making sure districts get state education adequacy aid of $3,450 per student per year if students enroll from out of district. That way, at least the district would not bear the full cost of the education, Southerton said.
They don’t have to be set up with specialties, but New Hampshire charter schools do have focus areas. The Academy for Equine Sciences Charter School focuses on equine sciences, while the Academy for Science and Design Charter School focuses on math and science. The North Country Charter School takes in students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.