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Finding funding next step for bill to increase charter school aid

A bill to boost charter school aid that passed the House this week faces a tough road in the House Finance Committee, tasked with determining where to find the more than $2 million the bill would cost.

“We have a lot of needs in this state, and I would have to think that we’d have to look at all of them,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the finance committee.

The aid bill passed the House, 177-124, a rejection of the House Education Committee’s recommendation to kill it. Several Democrats on that committee said they were surprised by the full House’s vote and cautioned against taking money away from traditional public schools and giving it to charter schools.

“There is a funding pie for public schools,” said Rep. Mel Myler, a Contoocook Democrat and House Education Committee member. “Any time you try to play with that money, because it’s a defined amount, (if) you add some to one group, somebody else is going to lose.”

Public charter schools receive $5,498 per pupil this school year, which is $2,000 more than the adequacy payments all schools receive per student. The bill would increase that funding to 50 percent of the state public school’s average cost per pupil, which was $13,459 for the 2012-2013 school year. Based on these numbers, funding per charter school student would go up roughly $1,200 per student.

Nearly 2,000 students are enrolled this year in 17 charter schools (excluding the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, which is funded through a separate mechanism). At a $1,200 increase per student, that means the finance committee will need to find $2.4 million dollars to fund the increase. This increase doesn’t include the 400 students who could enroll in four newly approved charters set to open this fall.

This bill will go to a finance subcommittee, which likely won’t take on retained bills until next week or the week after, Wallner said. At this time, she doesn’t have a sense of where the money would come from, but said that the Legislature already passed funding for charter schools in last year’s budget.

While school choice is often seen as a Republican cause, many state Democrats and Gov. Maggie Hassan are supportive of public charter schools. The debate among Democrats comes down to the level of financial support the state should provide and at what expense to public schools.

Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she supports charter schools as hubs of innovation or homes of alternative learning styles for children who aren’t succeeding in traditional public schools. But there are also studies to be done on how effective these charters are and decisions to be made about how many should be allowed, she said.

“We have to take a good look at, are we doing the right thing by supporting two publicly funded systems of education?” Gile said.

Rep. Virginia Irwin, a Newport Democrat, sees it differently. Irwin is on the board for a charter school in Manchester and previously worked in the Department of Education. Charter schools need additional funding because they don’t have the means to levy taxes to raise money, she said. New Hampshire’s charter schools are in their “infancy” and attendance is fluctuating, which can put a strain on funding. A guarantee of more money could help these schools stabilize and grow.

That’s the case at TEAMS charter school in Penacook. The technology-focused school started with a very low enrollment in 2011 and is now up to 26 students, Director George Rogers said. The school is weaning off reliance on a start-up grant as enrollment grows, but additional money would help bring stability, he said. Being a technology and science school requires buying high-quality equipment and hiring people to manage it, which can be expensive.

“The extra money (would) make it so that we can do that without feeling like we have to turn the lights off halfway through the day,” Rogers said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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