N.H. Charter Schools May Get More Leeway and More Support

Published May 1, 2009

New Hampshire charter school advocates are confident about the prospects of two charter-related legislative initiatives, one streamlining the charter application process and the other providing facilities funding for charter schools.

House Bill 688 would abbreviate the approval process for locally authorized public charter schools. Supporters hope the legislation will cut the process from more than two years to about a year.

Charter schools could receive 30 percent of the reimbursement for annual lease payments under House Bill 140. Charters currently do not receive funding through the state’s facilities aid program.

Both bills have passed the House Education Committee. At press time HB 140 was pending in the House Finance Committee, as the state explores the possibility of using federal stimulus funds for charter school facilities. HB 688 passed the House in a late March floor vote. At press time, no action had been taken on it by the Senate.

The situation became a bit complicated on March 31, when the House Finance Committee passed an amendment that would cap charter school enrollment statewide and extend a moratorium on state-authorized charter schools, set to expire in June, by providing no funding for them.

Increasing Acceptance

Charter proponents view the new proposals as evidence the schools are increasingly recognized as viable public school options. Eileen Liponis, executive director of the New Hampshire Chartered Public School Association, said, “the tide has turned.”

“People in the state are more familiar with charter schools now,” Liponis explained.

Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, agrees.

“Over the last several years, New Hampshire has come to know charter schools. We’ve dispelled some of the myths surrounding charters,” Southerton said. “People know what charters are and the innovation they offer.”

Overcoming Ideology

State Rep. Kimberley Casey (D-Rockingham) has led the legislative charge for charters, initiating both bills in the state House this year and advocating for charter funding in the last legislative session.

Casey said the bills are designed to create an atmosphere in which charters are treated the same as other public schools.

“Charter schools had to overcome ideological challenges from the inception of the law until now. Attitudes toward charters have changed considerably,” Casey said. “We support opportunities for school districts to be creative in the way they serve their students. We want to create as many opportunities as possible to provide individualized instruction for students.”

Legal Impediments

New Hampshire currently has 11 charter schools. Although its charter law passed in 1995, the first charter schools did not open until legislative changes introduced a state authorization process in 2003.

The original charter law allowed only what advocates describe as a prohibitively lengthy district authorization process. All existing charter schools have been authorized by the State Board of Education.

HB 688 will streamline the local authorizing process by removing an initial town vote requirement. Casey believes the legislative changes will create a more user-friendly process.

Resistance Remains

Todd Ziebarth, vice president for policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says New Hampshire’s legislature will probably approve the bill streamlining district authorization, but he is uncertain of its ultimate impact.

“There is still a lot of skepticism and resistance to charters at the district level,” Ziebarth said. “If the state retains both the state and district authorization options, there are good prospects for future growth, but it will be hard slogging.”

The state Department of Education no longer receives a federal grant providing start-up funds for new charter schools. The original grant expired in 2007, and the state has an application for a new grant pending.

Bad Reputation

New Hampshire has a relatively poor reputation for charter school progress.

The Center for Education Reform’s 2008 charter law rankings gave New Hampshire a “C” and declared it the 13th weakest of the nation’s 41 charter laws. Ziebarth said the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools considers New Hampshire’s funding among the worst nationwide, with no facilities funding and low operating money compared to district schools.

Ziebarth believes additional changes to state law are needed beyond the facilities funding and application process proposals. Also, he says, the state’s overall education environment needs to evolve further for new schools to open.

“There is still uncertainty around future charter funding and the state’s and districts’ openness to new charters,” Ziebarth said.

Virginia Gentles ([email protected]) writes from Virginia. She previously served in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and led Florida’s school choice office.

For more information …

New Hampshire HB 140: http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/legislation/2009/HB0140.html

New Hampshire HB 688: http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/legislation/2009/HB0688.html