Charter school momentum had been building in the Granite State.
The Mill Falls Charter School, the state’s first public Montessori school, opened in Manchester this year. The Academy of Science and Design moved to a bigger space in Nashua. A few other charter school groups were in the application process. The legislature has been supportive of charter school expansion.
And then it all came to screeching and unexpected halt.
The state Board of Education instituted a moratorium on charter schools, citing funding issues, during its meeting in September. While there is talk now that the moratorium could be lifted next month, the decision left charter school advocates and legislators angry and confused.
This spring, it became clear DOE would be about $4.4 million short in charter school funding for the current fiscal year, not taking into account any future charter schools. The original state budget allocated as much as $10.2 million for charter schools. The state spends about $5,500 per charter school student, said Tom Raffio, chairman of the state Board of Education, who stressed that the board does support charter schools.
But lawmakers, including Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, who is chairman of the Fiscal Committee, have said in multiple reports the money is there. Advocates say charter school funding was addressed in legislation accompanying the state budget two years ago. The legislation essentially allowed the state to exceed the budgeted amount for charter schools. They say the Department of Education dramatically underreported charter school enrollment, which is why the legislation was needed to address charter school funding — because lawmakers knew the dollar amount listed in the budget wasn’t going to cut it.
Others say it’s not the state Board of Education’s job to worry about the funding for future charter schools — that’s the legislature’s job. Instead, the Board should only be focusing on the merits of a charter school application.
Raffio agreed that the board looks at the merits of charter schools, but one of the many criteria it must consider is fiscal sustainability. Raffio said the board couldn’t approve a charter school now without knowing if there will be funding a year from now. Raffio said the board met with the attorney general to make sure the board could legally deny future charter schools if it came to that.
Approving charter schools now wouldn’t impact the current budget — they would only begin to receive funding during Fiscal Year 2014. “The moratorium seems discriminatory based on the decisions of a budget that hasn’t even been created yet,” said Matthew Southerton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, a group advocating for charter schools. “That’s ridiculous.”
Charter schools are public schools, but they’re designed to operate with 80 percent of the budget of a typical public school. Most charter schools in New Hampshire have specific focuses, such as the Academy of Science and Design.
“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.
There are 17 charter schools up and running, with one more slated to open in Derry next fall, Raffio said. Raffio said the benchmark for charter schools was 20.
“Enrollments are flourishing and that’s a good thing,” Raffio said, noting that charter schools have grown from about 300 students in 2006 to more than 2,000.
Charter school expansion
Eight charter schools were approved just in the last two years. There are 15 more at various stages of the application process. That is a big expansion in a short time. Just a couple years ago, the state had instituted a moratorium on charter schools and the possibility for more seemed murky at best.
According to a Telegraph article, the Board of Education planned to hear appeals during its November meeting. According to the article, the existing charter schools would cost $16.7 million in Fiscal Year 2014, and it would cost the state an additional $9 million in Fiscal Year 2014 to fund the ones that are moving through the approval process.
It is a growing line item, though still not a big line item.The charter school population makes up about 1 percent of the state’s student body, Southerton said.
What’s riled charter school advocates, at least in part, is that Deputy Commissioner of Education Paul Leather told the board about the funding issues at the September meeting, under a line item titled “Charter school update,” and the board, without hesitation, took up a motion to institute a moratorium.
“Could we probably do a better job communicating? I’m sure we could. It wasn’t really until late this summer that we had our hands around it, and the only choice at the September board meeting was to deny any future requests...at that moment,” Raffio said.
Southerton said having charter schools in Manchester and Nashua was key, since the two population centers could pull folks in from various demographics. There is another charter school in the works in Nashua, but it was impacted by the moratorium.
Though the board might reverse the moratorium in November, that doesn’t necessarily mean the board would sign off on more charter schools, Southerton said. He thinks the board will lift the moratorium but will also keep pushing back applications so the schools won’t be able to open in 2013. Some of the groups applied in January and February, he said.
Part of the problem was that the decision to institute a moratorium kind of came out of the blue. Nobody got a chance to speak on the issue. When it was instituted, the board effectively denied all applications, regardless of what stage they were at.
“If they can delay these groups for a few more months, they’ll miss out on a whole year of start-up funding,” Southerton said. “This decision really jeopardizes their projects.” Politics are playing a role in this, Southerton said.
“Charter schools are being treated differently than all other public schools,” Southerton said.
“It sort of just keeps spinning sideways,” Southerton said. “And they just keep moving the ball.”
Charter school groups have filed appeals with the DOE in an effort to keep their charter school projects alive.