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Charter Schools Grow Despite Political Headwinds

Sam Evans-Brown
Data: Department of Education

Today the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a budget that doesn’t fund $2.5 million for new charter schools. If that policy stands it would be mean a de facto, two-year moratorium on charter schools. It’s a move that was met with surprise and confusion by charter school advocates. But to understand the decision takes knowing something about the long, political history of charter schools.

Dan Eaton, a democratic Budget writer who has served twelve terms in Concord, thinks of himself as an above-board kind of guy. “I don’t like to sandbag anybody, I like to be very straight-forward and heads up,” he explains.

That’s why he will tell you, the reason he and House Democrats removed proposed funding for charter schools in their budget was to gain political leverage. It’s a maneuver, predicated on the belief that Senate Republicans will want charter funding enough to give Democrats something they want.

It’s the type of deal that’s common when budgets get hashed out “They are made all the time,” says Eaton.

But educators like Wendie Leweck, who have invested hundreds of hours into putting together an application for a charter school, are dumbfounded Democrats are using them as bargaining chip.

“I scratch my head and I kind of want to bang my head against the desk like a hundred times. Like, why would you not support this?”

Leweck has been working for the Seacoast High School for the Arts, one of four charters that were ready to open in the fall, but which have had to postpone for a year amid the budget wrangling.

Early Skepticism

But while Leweck might find it baffling, New Hampshire Democrats have been suspicious of charter schools from the start.

The first law allowing charter schools was passed in 1995. But the early legislation allowed schools to be authorized by local districts. Given that a district that set up a charter would be choosing to divide already limited education dollars, the idea never caught on. For years no schools were set-up and school choice advocates pushed for a law that would let the state authorize charters.

In 2002 then Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a proposal to allow the state to authorize charters, saying “it cut voters out of the approval process, it would have drained money out of local schools,” and “it also would allow the school board to order a local district to pay more than the adequacy level for a charter school.”

New Hampshire Democrats have been suspicious of charter schools from the start.

The arguments that Shaheen made then are roughly the same that some Democrats make now: as students leave standard public schools that saps state aid away from them, spreading those limited education dollars ever thinner.

But charter schools did become a reality; when Shaheen left office Republican Governor Craig Benson took over, proclaiming in his inaugural power-point presentation, “it’s time we became independent from the status quo, and it’s time we revolutionized government in a whole new way.

Benson signed a bill similar to the one Shaheen vetoed aiming to streamline the process by letting the state not districts authorize schools.

Tensions for the Early Schools

“When this started in 2003 it was very controversial, very divided,” explains Charlie Arlinghaus who directs the Josiah Bartlett center – a free market think tank that has always supported charter legislation. He says the relations between charters and their districts have often been tense, and the reason for this often had to do with money.

“The initial schools met with some resistance, because while the aid was sent through the school district, the school district was not always forthcoming with the aid to the schools.” He points to the Franklin Career Academy, which he says was essentially strangled to death when its district failed to pass along all of the adequacy money.

And adequacy alone made for rather slim operating margins. At a time when the average cost of educating a student in New Hampshire was over $9,000, charters were getting adequacy payments of around $3,700.

The funding may have made it tough on some early charters. So far, four schools have had to close and another that was approved failed to open. That’s more than 20 percent of approved schools that are shuttered, with the last one closing in 2010. It’s a rate that’s slightly higher than the national average, which a pro-charter group the Center for Education Reform puts at 15 percent.

“How Many People Knew…”

But times seem to be changing.

“We made sure we could fund some additional charter schools but also put some parameters in there to make sure that charter schools are in areas of the state were there’s a need for them, and to make sure they live within the budget that they identify.” That’s Governor Hassan, a democrat, voicing somewhat-qualified, somewhat-limited support for charter schools. And some say that’s a sea-change from the politics of the previous decade.

Lisa Lavoie is the Principal of the North Country Charter Academy, one of the state’s longest operating charters. She thinks that once people saw how the state’s charters operated, that changed some minds. “You know, how many people knew what charter school money was, or what a charter school is,” she says.

Early on, one fear was that charter schools would simply skim off the best students from public schools. But while some charters are aimed at stronger students, several – like Lavoie’s – target students at risk of dropping out, which has bolstered their appeal.

“72 percent of the kids – 72 percent of them, Sam, were on free and reduced lunch,” Lavoie points out.

There are now 17 charters in operation, with another that will open in the fall. And now, rather than out-and-out opposition Democratic leaders now stress that charters ought to be forced to spread out, and to explicitly target underserved populations.

But if any schools are going to open in this budget cycle, it will be up to Republican Senators, like Hampton’s Nancy Stiles who worked in the Hampton Public School system. And talking to her about charters, she sounds remarkably similar to Hassan on the charter question.

“Well I hate to put on moratoriums unless it’s an absolute have to do that,” says Stiles, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee, “But I do think we need to be able to get our hands around just how many new schools are coming on so that we can plan accordingly."

"I do think we need to be able to get our hands around just how many new schools are coming on so that we can plan appropriately." --Senator Nancy Stiles

And if key Democrats and Republicans are both saying roughly the same sorts of things about charters, that in of itself shows how far this debate has come.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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