New Hampshire has lifted a three-year moratorium on new charter schools in the Granite State. House Bill 1495 by State Rep. Kimberly Casey (D-East Kingston) ends the suspension, creates funding criteria, and establishes a five-year period between charter renewals.
“The reason we had the moratorium in the first place was to give us a chance to figure out how to fund all schools, including charter schools, and we have accomplished that,” Casey explained.
“Prior to that time, charter schools were funded outside of the normal school funding process,” she said. “There was a level of instability for charter schools and a level of chagrin for the legislators because oftentimes the guesswork involved in trying to figure out how much money they needed was insufficient.”
“It’s very exciting for us. The issue has never been public policy or about content. It’s always been about the money,” said Roberta Tenney, the state’s Administrator for School Standards.
Gov. John Lynch (R) signed HB 1495 on July 8.
Hoped for Federal Money
The bill’s timing is important because it gives New Hampshire charters a stable funding strategy in advance of the new school year. Legislators had also hoped the bill would improve the state’s chances in the second round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.
“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is stressing the kinds of reforms charter schools can provide public schools if they’re used correctly, something we want to be part of,” said Casey. “It would be foolish to turn our backs on opportunities to obtain federal money, so that factored into the decision-making process.”
The Granite State was not among the 19 Race to the Top finalists Duncan announced in July. But New Hampshire did receive an $11 million federal grant in August aimed at improving charter schools.
State Has Only 11 Charters
Tenney says Race to the Top was an excellent inspiration for reform, but New Hampshire needed to tackle charter schools on its own terms. There are currently just 11 charter schools in the state.
“I feel like we’re marching along, but not in lockstep with what Duncan wants,” said Tenney. “We’re not Chicago, but we are New Hampshire, and we’re doing some very innovative things here.
“We want to start innovative schools here that are the brainchildren of those school districts. We’re the only northern New England state with charters, and in terms of percentage we can reach the level of other states like California and Arizona,” Tenney explained.
‘This is Progress’
Beth McClure, principal of Strong Foundations Charter School in Pembroke, New Hampshire, said the new charter law is an encouraging turn of events.
“This is progress,” said McClure. “Each charter has something unique to offer the state, and as a group we have a strong association. There’s strength in numbers, so the more that there are the more responsive different aspects of the state will be, particularly the legislature.”
Tenney said the desire among charter operators to cooperate with state officials helped in moving the legislature toward lifting the moratorium.
“People have to cooperate when you’re a small state,” Tenney explained.
Law Equalizes Funding
Casey’s bill establishes a funding formula for charter schools. Unlike many states, New Hampshire still funds public education primarily at the local level, through property taxes. The state contributes funding based on the number of students and median income in a school district. Federal law also requires the state to account for special education needs and free-lunch programs.
“Because we depend so strongly on local property taxes to make up the bulk of education funding, what this state has tried to do is look closely at districts that have high property values and those with low property values,” Casey said.
“Rise or fall, HB 1495 covers all schools the same way,” said Casey. “Because I think it’s an important cultural change to understand that these are public schools worthy of the scrutiny given to any public school.”
“If we take it slowly and do it well, we’re better off in the long run,” she said. “We tend to be conservative on both sides of the aisle in this regard—that’s the culture here.”
Rob Goszkowski ([email protected]) writes from San Francisco, California.