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New NH charter schools face uncertain future

Charter school advocates say funding for new charters included in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget proposal is being held hostage by House lawmakers who want to use that money as a bargaining chip when they begin to negotiate a final budget with the Senate.

If the funding isn’t replaced, it could dash the hopes of several groups wanting to open charter schools in the next two years. The state could also lose more than $5 million in charter startup grants from the federal government. Stoddard Rep. Dan Eaton, a House budget writer, denies playing politics with charter funding, saying it was his understanding that there weren’t enough completed applications to receive the grant money.

In exchange for submitting to greater accountability standards, charter schools are given the freedom to tailor their curriculum to a particular specialization or learning style. Since first being approved in 2005, 17 charter schools have opened in New Hampshire and the funding for another is already in place. Close to 1.5 percent of public school students now attend charters.

Kerin Sevasco, a stay-at-home mother with a background in early childhood education, leads one such group in Nashua. Sevasco and nine other parents have spent thousands of hours meeting with real estate developers, city officials, teacher training groups and other trade organizations in the hopes of opening an arts-oriented charter school.

She heard positive feedback from Department of Education employees throughout the application process. After their application was completed in May 2012, a meeting they were promised with Education Commissioner Virginia Barry never materialized.

Then, at the Board of Education’s September meeting, members voted to stop approving new charter applications.

“That vote was a total surprise for us,” Sevasco said. “We felt a lot of anger and frustration at that time.”

Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio acknowledged that they could have done a better job of communicating with applicants and said the decision was the result of uncertainty about whether the Legislature would provide funding for new charter schools.

“The way the biannual budget process works, every couple of years we won’t be in a position to approve new charter schools on a timely basis because we don’t know what’s going to be in the budget,” Raffio said.

He said that uncertainty is created by a 2010 law change that removed the open-ended funding mechanism for charter schools, forcing them to wait and see what money is in the budget before approving additional spending.

Charter school advocate Matt Southerton said the state’s inaction has already lost them close to $800,000 in federal grant money, and, if it continues, they could lose more than $5 million more. Raffio said if the money is lost, it’s his understanding the state can reapply and the funds will likely be returned.

Southerton said House budget writers pounced on the Board of Education’s decision, using it to carve out a bargaining position for future negotiations with the Senate. He recorded and later uploaded to YouTube a clip of Eaton, who chairs a House finance committee, saying during a public hearing on the budget that charter funding could be used for political gain.

“I’m trying to have a trump card or two, and this is one where it might be a very healthy trump card,” Eaton says in the video.

Eaton said he hasn’t seen the clip but believes he’s being taken out of context. He added, though, that such political maneuvers are perfectly acceptable and widely used. He said the Department of Education told him there weren’t enough sufficiently completed charter applications to receive the federal grant money anyway.

Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather said his department didn’t tell Eaton that, but he declined to comment on the readiness of charter applications at that time or their bearing on federal aid. Repeated calls seeking further comment from the Department of Education weren’t returned.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, said she believes the Senate will be able to include money for several new charters, but she would like to see accurate enrollment estimates so a precise appropriation can be made.

Beyond the uncertainty in the Legislature, much about the future of new charters in the state is unsettled. Raffio said if the money for new charter schools is replaced in the budget, then the board will start approving completed applications in June or July. But he said a wider policy debate must take place over the number of charters the state can support long term.

Some worry charters could upset the economic sustainability of New Hampshire’s public education system by siphoning per-pupil adequacy dollars away from traditional public schools at a time when resources are spread thin and those schools are struggling to meet fixed costs.

Southerton said he believes charter schools will always represent a relatively small percentage of public school enrollments, but there should not be an arbitrary limit on children’s educational options.

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