December 6 2012

Uncertain Future for New Hampshire Charter Schools

Vicki E. Alger

Democrats gained a majority in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, while Republicans retained their Senate majority in this month’s election. Lame duck lawmakers approved more money for charter schools after the state board of education said it lacked the funding to approve more. But it’s unclear what impact the political shift will have on New Hampshire charter schools.

The State Board of Education imposed a moratorium on new charter schools in September, stating no more charter school applications would be approved until funding was assured for them as well as the 17 existing charter schools.

Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee Chair Ken Weyler (R-Kingston) called on the State Board to lift its unauthorized moratorium. State Board officials said they are acting on the advice of the State Attorney General’s Office, which has concerns about state liability if the board approves new charter schools without assured funding for next year.

New Hampshire charter schools receive $5,250 per student in state aid. The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approved $4.45 million for the 17 charter schools currently operating through next year on November 8. That still leaves a $5.3 million state aid shortfall according to some estimates.

Quantifying 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.

Chairman Weyler explained that the House used the Association’s figures, while the Senate used figures from the department when they crafted the budget last year. “The Department of Education went to the Senate and low balled the number,” he said. “The compromise position was to accept the Senate number…but allow the Joint Fiscal Committee to add more money if needed.”

The compromise budget allows the education department to spend up to 10 percent above its appropriation if a shortfall materializes. If 10 percent is not enough, it can request additional funding from the fiscal committee.

Two Democratic members of the fiscal committee voted against the compromise. Rep. Sharon Nordgren (D-Hanover) and Sen. Sylvia Larsen (D-Concord) each expressed concerns about authorizing spending without knowing how much is actually needed.

“We added $4.5 million dollars in new money plus $900,000 in an allowed 10 percent overspend,” said Weyler. “This would not have been necessary if we had stuck with the charter schools’ original projection.”

Eileen Liponis, Executive Director of NHPCSA, expressed concern that the State Board’s moratorium could jeopardize $11.6 million in federal funding already awarded to the state for the new charter schools’ start up costs.

Weyler expressed larger concerns, including hostility toward charter schools by the state education department. Department officials “always say they support charters, but do everything behind the scenes to stymie them,” he explained.

According to Weyler, education department officials advised the State Board of Education not to approve any new charter schools due to lack of money. “We told them that the board does not have the authority to do that,” he explained. “Now they are waiting for the Democrat majority in the House to help stop charters.”

“I am worried about charter schools with a Democrat Majority in the New Hampshire House,” Weyler said. When Democrats had a majority a few years ago, “they put a two year moratorium on charter schools in a deal to increase the state support for the present ones,” he explained.

The federal start-up grant and a Republican majority helped end New Hampshire’s charter school moratorium. “We still have a Republican Majority in the Senate,” Weyler noted, “so we may be able to prevent the moves against charters that the teachers union and their allies the Democrats want.”

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