Future Uncertain for New Hampshire Charter Schools
New Hampshire’s board of education said it will not approve new charter schools until the legislature sends them more money, and the results of November’s elections mean that may be difficult in the next legislative session.
Democrats gained a majority in the state House of Representatives starting January, while Republicans retained their Senate majority. Though prominent Democrats including President Obama support charter schools, New Hampshire Democrats tend to be less enthusiastic.
“I am worried about charter schools with a Democrat Majority in the New Hampshire House,” said Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee Chairman Ken Weyler (R-Kingston). When Democrats had a majority a few years ago, “they put a two-year moratorium on charter schools."
Charters’ Popularity Unexpected
Lame-duck lawmakers approved an extra $4.45 million for the 17 charter schools currently operating, but estimates indicate a $5.3 million shortfall remains. Charter schools are due more money because more students want to enroll in them than lawmakers expected.
Part of the problem is the state’s school funding formula continues to pay traditional schools for three to four years after a student has moved out. Senate Bill 401 would fund schools according to the most recent year’s enrollment.
Board of education officials said they declared the moratorium on the advice of the State Attorney General’s Office, over concerns about state liability if the board approves new charter schools without assured funding for fall 2013.
New Hampshire charter schools under state authority receive $5,250 per student from the state, and charters under district authority receive $7,000-$8,000. Average per-pupil funding for traditional district schools is approximately $12,000.
Disagreement Over Budget Estimates
Specifying the funding shortfall depends on how many charter school students there are, and estimates from the New Hampshire Public Charter Schools Association and the state education department differ. The education department’s numbers are lower.
The state budget lets the education department spend up to 10 percent above its appropriation if a shortfall occurs. If 10 percent is not enough, it can request additional funding from the fiscal committee. It did not request additional funds. In this case, the legislature approved those additional funds anyway, but the board of education has refused to end its moratorium.
Two Democratic members of the fiscal committee voted against the additional $4.45 million. Rep. Sharon Nordgren (D-Hanover) and Sen. Sylvia Larsen (D-Concord) each expressed concerns about authorizing spending without knowing how much schools actually will spend.
Eileen Liponis, NHPCSA’s executive director, said she worried the moratorium could jeopardize $11.6 million in federal funding already awarded for the new, now in limbo charter schools’ start-up costs.
Department officials “always say they support charters, but do everything behind the scenes to stymie them,” Weyler said, noting connections between anti-charter teachers unions and Democratic lawmakers. “Now they are waiting for the Democrat majority in the House to help stop charters.”
Image by Office of Governor Patrick.