Charter funding is growing quickly
Pending in the New Hampshire Legislature right now are four charter bills that would significantly increase charter school enrollment and general fund appropriations. Taken together, these bills highlight a possible transition in New Hampshire charter school policy.
The primary objective DOE gives for the New Hampshire charter program is to serve “educationally disadvantaged students most at risk.” But, as charter enrollment has been doubling every three years and expenditures have ballooned from $3.5 in 2009 to and estimated $22,7 million in 2015, the role of New Hampshire’s charters has shifted.
…but may not be addressing New Hampshire priorities
Only seven of New Hampshire’s 22 active charters are for children at-risk – and none of the charters in the pipeline are for at-risk kids. The four newly approved charters opening next September will offer specialized curricula from Montessori to leadership and the arts. Eleven more charters are either in the approval process or intending to apply for a charter. None of those are for at-risk children. By the time the 2015 school year begins, we could have almost 4,000 charter school students (aside from VLACS), only 15% of whom are at-risk children – a lower proportion than in our traditional public schools.
That’s because the department of education does not have the legislative authority to drive the charter program in any particular direction. There has seemed to be a consensus emerging among policy makers that charters should continue to play this important niche role, but that has not yet taken legislative form.
The rate of charter growth should be a policy choice
Why is the accelerated growth of charters a problem – even if it is at the high end? They’re still our kids, aren’t they? And charters are accountable public schools, right?”
Whether charter growth is a problem or not depends upon your point of view, but it certainly should be a policy choice rather than something that slips into place unnoticed.
Does New Hampshire actually intend to create a second public school system funded entirely by the General Fund?
As charters migrate out of the focused role they have had supplementing the State’s traditional public schools, they are actually becoming a second – alternative – public school system. But there are big implications to that.
While our established public school system is funded primarily by local property taxes, the alternative charter system is entirely state funded. Each child the State transfers from a local district to this new charter school system costs the district an average of $4,200 – and up to $8,200 in some districts. But the district’s costs do not go down much – maybe $500 according to a recent DOE estimate.
So, New Hampshire, a state that is allergic to raising revenues, is in the perverse position moving students out of a locally funded system that needs them and is well able to serve them, into a new state-funded school system that the State has not decided how to pay for.
Although charters started with the notion that they could get along on a lot less funding than the traditional public schools, the low funding level actually results in constant pressure for increases of the kind proposed this year.
The charter budget can increase but will never decrease in hard times
And once increased, they can never be reduced. Charters are not like other general fund budget items that can be cut in hard times: once a charter school is established, the Legislature is unlikely to tell those families that next year’s funding will be cut.
If the charter school system grows to play a central role in New Hampshire public education, the costs will inevitably begin to look more like those of the traditional public schools, as has happened in other states.
You can see how this happens. As parents and neighbors, we appreciate charters. We all know someone who has benefitted from a charter school. But Legislators setting policy for the State have a different question to answer. Are we setting up a second public school system whose growth is not controllable and who’s claims for future revenues are open ended?