Regardless of whether the legislature ultimately votes to repeal a state moratorium on charter schools, residents shouldn’t expect a sudden surge in numbers of charter schools, says Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools.
The state House of Representatives voted in favor of repealing the moratorium last month by a 276-10 vote, but it also attached a fiscal note regarding the financial impact repealing the moratorium would have. The issue now goes to the House Finance Committee, where Southerton said it would be a “tough sell” due to the downturn in the economy.
“If they were to repeal the moratorium, obviously I think it would be a good thing for the state,” Southerton said. “But in reality, if they were to repeal it, the state should not fear all of a sudden 10 to 20 charter schools popping up.”
Charter schools grew in popularity in the mid-1990s, and the state endorsed a 10-year pilot program in 2003, which allowed the state to authorize up to 20 charter schools. The state had about 1,000 students in its 11 charter schools last year. The schools themselves provide a little more leeway for teachers to try new things. Still, 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, Southerton said. Charters schools in New Hampshire have open enrollment though there is an application process.
The legislature last year opted not to enact a measure that would have capped charter school enrollment. The cap, Southerton said, would have put New Hampshire at a disadvantage for competitive education grants from the federal government. The moratorium was supposed to end last year and though it didn’t enact the enrollment cap, the legislature did extend the moratorium. The moratorium could have hurt the state’s chances of obtaining those grants last year in the same way the enrollment cap could have. The same could hold true if the cap isn’t lifted this time around, Southerton said.
Southerton said a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools had New Hampshire as one of 13 states nationwide that failed to meet key tests for federal funding, specifically tied to restrictive caps on charter school growth. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has several times reiterated his interest in investing in places where schools are innovating. He’s also reiterated his stance that states in any way hindering charter school growth would diminish their chances of receiving federal education money.
“Honestly, [a new charter school] could be up to a year away,” Southerton said. “And it might not ever happen if it doesn’t receive a new start-up grant...”
Every charter school in the state has needed help from the $7 million start-up grant from the federal Department of Education to get going. The state ran out of the grant in 2006.
“There probably won’t be any new ones until we can win new start-up grants,” Southerton said, adding the state is applying for federal grants and could hear in the next couple months.
Repealing the moratorium would be a step in that direction.
Southerton said the state has made progress in making charter schools less of a partisan issue — it used to be that Democrats were against charter schools and Republicans were in favor. Southerton said some legislators have genuine concerns about charter schools’ fiscal stability. Some legislators are concerned about funding issues, particularly in the case of the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, which offers online courses. In some cases, the state has paid for the student twice — once in his or her home district and once at a prorated amount at the charter school.
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, last year supported an enrollment cap and wanted to control charter school “double dipping” in terms of state funding.
As it stands now, individual communities can set up charter schools, but the process takes about three years to complete, if a community is on board. While Southerton said he didn’t think any charter schools would imminently emerge if the moratorium were lifted, he did say there are at least three groups statewide pursuing the local approval option. Some communities opt for that route at least in part to alleviate overcrowding issues in their school district. So far, no communities in the state have successfully established a charter school through the local authorization process, he said.
They don’t have to be set up with specialties, but all 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.