The Portsmouth Herald covers the governor’s budget trade-off between vouchers and charters:
When it comes to education policy in New Hampshire, little is cut and dry and there is no shortage of interconnected budget complications.
Consider charter school funding and the hope to break a current moratorium on issuing permits for new charter schools. Gov. Maggie Hassan made charter school funding a highlighted part of her budget address this month. She called for increased funding “to allow new charter schools to open and to allow existing charter schools to accept new enrollees.”
Hassan also called on the 17 existing charter schools — including two in Exeter and one each in Dover and Kingston — to “live within their budget, and so this budget sets new parameters and provides authority for the Department of Education to prioritize new charter school approval to underserved communities.”
Hassan’s advocacy was welcomed by supporters of proposed charter school Seacoast High School for the Arts, which has been in bureaucratic limbo since a moratorium on new charter school applications was enacted last September due to a lack of state funds.
“It’s great news and very encouraging,” said Wendie Leweck, chairwoman of the Friends of Seacoast High School for the Arts, the group behind the two-year effort for an arts-focused charter school. “When the Legislature passes the budget, we will have a chance to present the merits of our charter proposal. I am cautiously optimistic.”
Supporters hoped to open SHSA in September, but due to the moratorium, Leweck said, the proposed opening date is now September 2014.
Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said the governor seeks $42.1 million for charter schools over the biennium, an increase of $24 million over the previous budget amount and $18 million over actual expenditures. But there could be a catch due to a connection to another controversial education issue — the repeal of the voucher or education tax credit bill passed in the 2012. That measure became law last year after the Republican-dominated Legislature overrode Gov. John Lynch’s veto.
In her budget address, Hassan said, “to help pay for these investments, this budget repeals the voucher tax credit that would have diverted millions of dollars in taxpayer money to private and religious schools with no accountability.” Goldberg said the charter school funding proposed by Hassan has $4 million in the biennium coming from a repeal of the new voucher law.
The so-called voucher law allows businesses to get up to an 85 percent business tax cut for donating a maximum $10,000 to one of the scholarship funds for students seeking going to a private, religious or home schooling alternative to the public school system. The first round of tax credit-funded scholarships is not scheduled to be released until September.
[ANHPE Comment: Actually, there is no $10,000 limit on contribution size. The limit is 10% of a given year’s tax credit allocation. The tax credit allocation this year si $3.4 million, so $340,000 would be the upper limit for a donation from a single business.]
The bipartisan sponsored repeal measure, House Bill 370, passed the House last week by a vote of 188-151, and moves to the Senate where its prospects are less sure. State Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, testified against repeal at a House Ways and Means committee hearing in January. Stiles, chairwoman of the Senate education committee which will take up the bill next, said it’s too soon for repeal.
Public education advocate Bill Duncan of New Castle said it was “logical” for voucher repeal and charter school funding to be connected by Hassan. Duncan believes charter schools have broad popular support because of how they have slowly evolved and they are publicly accountable. He said no framework for accountability was put into the tax voucher law.
“It would be difficult to find the money in this tight budget to fund the new charters, but repeal of the poorly conceived voucher tax credit, as the governor calls it, would be an efficient way to address both issues at once,” Duncan said.
The fate and constitutionality of the voucher law could ultimately be decided in the courts. Duncan is the lead-named plaintiff in a case filed in early January by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of New Hampshire and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which say the “statewide tuition tax-credit program that would divert taxpayer funds to private religious schools in violation of the state Constitution.” A Strafford Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear the case in April.
Supporters of the tax credit for scholarships program say the law’s constitutionality was thoroughly vetted by the Legislature before its passage and repealing it would hurt low-income families by denying them greater academic choice.
“This is private money being used to provide private scholarships to children from low- and moderate-income families,” said state Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett.
While the budgetary and policy debates continue in the courts and at the State House, Leweck said the Seacoast High School for the Arts organization has used the time to fine tune its charter application and further develop the nuts and bolts of the school. She admits the process from idea to formal approval has been an education in its own right.
“I didn’t realize how political this process was,” she said.
When and if it finally opens, SHSA will first offer Grades 9 and 10 and eventually have 50 students in each grade when it includes Grades 11 and 12. Leweck said they take seriously Hassan’s call for schools to live within their budget means. She said the money from the state — about $5,600 per student — requires due diligence for every aspect of the school.
“We realize we have to make very smart, conscious choices,” she said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.