If the future of charter schools in New Hampshire is uncertain now, it could be even more so as the new legislature transitions into the Statehouse.
The GOP-led legislature has been supportive of existing charter schools and welcoming to new charter schools during the last two years. GOP lawmakers have continually talked about the importance of choice and competition in education. During the last two years, eight charter schools opened in New Hampshire. Charter schools have grown from about 300 students in 2006 to more than 2,000 now, officials said. There are 17 charter schools in operation and another is scheduled to open next fall in Derry.
But new charter school applicants began to feel they were getting the runaround this past summer. They had trouble scheduling meetings with Department of Education officials, said Matthew Southerton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, which advocates for charter schools. Many new charter school groups had moved well into the process of opening a school when things stalled at the state level.
And then in September, seemingly out of the blue from charter school advocates’ perspective, the Board of Education denied all outstanding charter school applications and said it would deny any future applications until funding issues were resolved.
Charter schools were underfunded by about $4.4 million this year, which the BOE cited when it instituted the charter school ban in September. The legislature authorized the DOE to spend the additional $4.4 million last week, which covers charter school costs through the rest of this fiscal year but doesn’t provide funding for any new charter schools.
During the budgeting process in 2010, the DOE dramatically underreported the number of charter school students. Southerton’s organization provided lawmakers with more accurate figures. Lawmakers and DOE officials knew the DOE’s figures were inaccurate. Lawmakers opted to reduce the line item anyway to help balance the budget on paper and then “deal with it later,” Southerton said.
Legislators passed legislation to accompany the state budget two years ago allowing the state to exceed the budgeted amount for charter schools, knowing they were underfunded. The original state budget allocated as much as $10.2 million for charter schools. The state spends about $5,500 per charter school student, officials said.
The BOE has faced criticism from some, saying it’s not the Board’s job to worry about the financial side of the equation; rather, it’s the Board’s job to judge charter schools on the merit of an application. Board Chairman Thomas Raffio said earlier this fall that one of the application criteria is financial sustainability. With funding unclear, Raffio said the Board opted to wait until the new legislature makes the call.
“Conceptually, we’re in favor of charter schools, and we hope the legislature will resolve this year’s shortfall, and then we’ll wait for the new legislature to make a determination on future charter schools,” Raffio said in an interview with the Hippo last month.
Some see politics in this decision. But the BOE feels it cannot sign off on more charter schools until it knows the state is prepared to fund them, Raffio said.
A partisan issue?
Historically, Republicans have been more supportive of charter schools than Democrats. With Democrats holding the governor’s office and a majority in the state House of Representatives, it’s possible charter schools won’t be met with open arms in the coming legislative session. Still, Southerton has hope.
“I personally know a lot of Democrats support charter schools,” Southerton said. “An interesting fact is that the majority of these [charter school] startup groups are all Democrats. ... I’m certainly hoping we can work with the new legislature to break this logjam.”
Democrats have campaigned on investing more in education after the legislature made significant cuts in the current budget, particularly to the state’s university system. It’s unclear what that might mean for charter schools.
There is talk of forming a local entity of Democrats for Education Reform, which is a national group, Southerton said.
Total state adequacy for education is $955 million in the current budget. Even including the recent $4.4 million authorization for charter schools, total charter school funding is $13.5 million this year. That’s 1.4 percent of the total state adequacy aid budget, Southerton said.
“That’s what’s sad to me,” Southerton said.
Southerton is concerned about the financial implications of the charter school ban. The state is in the third year of a five-year federal charter school startup grant totalling $11.6 million. The state is slated to receive about $2.4 million in each of the next two years. “That’s $5 million coming into the economy giving teachers and parents different options,” Southerton said.With the BOE instituting a ban on charter schools, Southerton was concerned the federal government would reduce the amount of the grant, he said.