Hassan’s budget increases charter school funding, but isn’t blank check for new schools

Last modified: 2/19/2013 12:37:12 AM
Gov. Maggie Hassan last week proposed boosting state funding for public charter schools, a move that would break – for now – the fiscal logjam that led officials last year to place a moratorium on new schools.

Hassan’s budget, as delivered to the Legislature, contains an additional $18 million over the next biennium to help new charter schools open and allow the 17 existing schools (an 18th will open this fall) enroll more students, according to her office.

That’s good news for charter school advocates, who have been up in arms since Sept. 19, when the State Board of Education said it wouldn’t approve any more charter schools because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to finance them. Public charter schools are free for students to attend and receive grants from the state – $5,450 per pupil in grades 1-12 for the current school year – to help cover their operating expenses.

“The governor has been a public charter school supporter in the past and we applaud her for her vision and commitment to public charter school options,” wrote Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, in an email. The center is a nonprofit that helps set up charter schools.

If the extra money is approved by legislators, the State Board of Education would be in a position to green-light four new schools with applications that are complete or nearly so, assuming those applications also meet the “plethora of other criteria that we look for,” said Chairman Tom Raffio, also the president and chief executive officer of Northeast Delta Dental.

Those schools are the Gate City Charter School for the Arts, a K-8 school in Nashua; the Seacoast High School for the Arts in the Exeter area; Mountain Village Charter School, a K-8 school in the Plymouth area; and Innovative Futures Technical Academy in Dover.

The state budget won’t be finalized until June, and so the increased charter school funding will be in limbo until then. But, Raffio said, “if there’s some way I can have assurances that that’s good, we may not have to wait” until a final budget passes.

Still, he said, in another year, the board could find itself in the same dilemma as it did last year, with applications for new schools coming through the pipeline but without any assurance that the next two-year state budget (to be adopted in 2015) would have the increased funding to pay for them.

“Every other year, we’re going to be in this situation,” Raffio said. “So we need to address that.”

There’s also legislation pending in the House that would lift the cap on aid to charter schools, which supporters say is meant to end the moratorium by removing the legal block to financing future schools. The bill was endorsed last week by the House Education Committee, 11-8.

Where schools open

Charter schools are often founded to serve students who struggle in traditional public schools, or who want to focus on subjects like the arts or the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

Since 2004, charter schools have proliferated in the state’s southern tier and on the Seacoast, but not in places like the Lakes Region, Upper Valley or the North Country. There are as many charter schools in Manchester, three, as there are in the entire state north of Concord and Dover: Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, Robert Frost Charter School in North Conway and the North Country Charter Academy in Littleton and Lancaster.

Hassan, in her speech to the Legislature last Thursday, said officials should “prioritize new charter school approval to underserved communities,” steering aid to schools in areas that don’t already have charter schools.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced approval of that sentiment, and for Hassan’s general support of charter schools.

“I do agree that we need to take a look at the approval process and make sure they are actually filling the needs that are out there,” said Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee.

Concord Rep. Jim MacKay, a Democrat and former Concord mayor, is chairman of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center’s board.

“We’re thinking seriously about developing a charter school inside the Discovery Center in STEM programs, from eighth to 12th grade,” he said last week. “We’re in the beginning stage of looking at that, and when I heard that I was impressed. But she did say that there had to be certain criteria she would outline for them to follow. I think that’s a good thing.”

Raffio agreed.

“We want to make sure that when we approve charter schools that we’re looking at the geographic diversity. We won’t want three charter schools within 20 miles, because that would kind of defeat the purpose,” he said.

Southerton wrote that charter school advocates have other concerns that he believes should be addressed first, including the long-term funding question, the status of applications that were denied last year when the state board’s moratorium was imposed and the transparency of the application process.

But Raffio said he believes the state education board already has the ability to approve or reject schools based on geography, as well as other factors.

“I think she’s just reinforcing that point,” he said of Hassan’s speech.

In any case, he said, officials have long intended to take a broader look at the state’s charter school policy once 20 or so schools were up and running, “and we’re just about there.”

(Staff reporter Sarah Palermo contributed to this article. Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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