New Hampshire has authorized 18 charter schools over the past 20 years but has really never arrived at a settled charter school policy. Right now there are four charter school bills pending in the House Education Committee and several fully developed charter applications awaiting legislative action before they can proceed. New Hampshire needs to replace its ad hoc approach to charters with a real and the leadership that could do it is in place now. Maybe it would be possible to provide the funding needed for the immediate pending charter applications but then step back and take the time needed to think through the role of charters in New Hampshire.
Here are some of the policy questions that seem to need answers.
What role do we want charters to play in New Hampshire’s public education system?
This is the key question. The answer drives the rest of the charter policy. And, actually, this question has been answered already. The original legislation had a clear goal, to establish charter schools “with specific or focused curriculum, instruction, methods, or target pupil groups.”
The legislation has never changed but this limited goal sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Sen. Reagan testified at the 2/5/13 House Education Committee hearing on HB 435 that he co-sponsored the bill to save the taxpayers money because charters are lower cost than public schools. In this view, charters would not supplement the mission of the traditional public school but replace traditional schools in order to save money.
If the goal of New Hampshire charter advocates is to replace public schools (national school choice advocates are big on “conversion charters”), maybe a debate is needed on that. But imagine a charterized world for a minute. Basically, we would have cut out the school boards. But there would not be much benefit to that. Charters deliver roughly the same education that our traditional public schools do. (In 2009, a large-scale study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, the most credible source on these matters, showed that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education.)
In the mean time, although we agree that we do not see charters as a replacement for traditional public schools, it is time to look at what the impact of charters has been on New Hampshire public education and communities and whether the State using the right criteria for approval.
What missions do we want?
Right now, the Board of Education reviews the clarity and quality of a charter’s mission statement, but does the board assess whether this is a mission we need to spend state money on? Should it make that assessment?
Could the state board lay out its high priority mission areas – ambitious STEM programs, at-risk students, experimentation with longer school year or teaching strategy, etc? Should it?
What sponsorship do we want?
Are for-profit charter management organizations acceptable? What record of accomplishment are we looking for? What about union sponsorship?
What level of performance should we require?
The quality of a state’s charter program depends on the charter school authorizer – in this case, the state Board of Education. This is a big subject but this recent New York Times editorial highlights the issues involved.
How much money do we want to put into charters?
Charter schools are optional enhancement to the New Hampshire public education system. They can be a tool to address certain state priorities. However, when we allocate money to charters, we are making a choice not to fund something else. The Legislature is debating whether to invest again in the Children in Need of Services program, whether to restore funding for the university and community college systems, whether to expand Medicaid eligibility, how to fix our roads and bridges, what to do about our prisons, and many other demands on our limited resources. This is the context in which the Legislature will make the charter school funding decision.
This question of priorities is in particularly sharp focus this year because last year’s Legislature ran out of money for new charters and there are charters that, after extensive preparation, are awaiting immediate start-up money. However, there is a key big-picture consideration here.
Right now, the State Education Trust Fund and General Fund pay 20% of the cost of public education, our traditional public schools. The federal contribution is another 7% of the total. The vast bulk of the cost of public education, over 70%, is paid by local property tax and the Statewide Education Property Tax (which is just a portion of the local property tax re-christened as a state tax).
But charter schools authorized by the state Board of Education are funded, aside from some federal start-up funding, entirely by State adequacy funds. So the more students we educate in charter schools, the more the responsibility for funding education shifts from the communities to the State – essentially the business profits tax. This may or may not be acceptable to the Legislature, but the decision should be explicit.
Charter advocates point out that charters are a good deal for the State because they’re cheaper than traditional public schools, while at the same time making the case for funding increases. Others respond that traditional public school budgets are always as tight as possible because the schools are under close scrutiny by local tax payers and that charters are lower cost because they have more modest and focused missions. The proposition that charters would cost significantly less if they were carrying out the same mission as traditional public schools is probably not realistic. However, charters targeted to specific needs could continue to be measured against other priorities as a potentially good investment
There are two parts to the money question: How many charters to we want and how much should support should the State provide charters for each student?
How many charters?
For charter advocates, the answer is easy: more is better. For the Legislature, each charter is a long-term commitment and a shift from local to State funding, so the granting of new charters is a high impact decision.
How much money should each charter get?
On this question too, charter advocates will, as advocates for all causes do, always have a rational for more money. There may be no objective criteria for how much funding per student charters should get compared to competing priorities.