Legislative Apathy is Biggest Threat to Charter Schools


Charlie Arlinghaus

March 11, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Over the last twelve years charter schools have become a small but critically important part of New Hampshire’s education infrastructure. Today, they are under threat by a legislative apathy that threatens to starve them to death. Some opponents are content to ignore any problems hoping no one will notice as the schools fight a struggle for survival. Soft supporters are equally guilty of destruction through apathy – one can’t claim to support something and then ignore it to the point of destruction.

From our founding, my organization, the Josiah Bartlett Center, has cajoled and prodded the powers that to be to enact and support charter schools. They are a reform which has done so much good for so many children across the country – bringing alternatives to children whose economic circumstances often leave them with no real choices.

In the end the weak laws of the 1990s were reformed and then-Gov. Benson signed a state charter school law in 2003 which led to the creation of strongly desired and needed schools.

From the beginning, the reform was fought. I was very critical in 2005 when then-Gov. Lynch sat idly by and allow a local school board to maliciously withhold money designated for the state’s first charter school and gleefully watch it collapse, starved of its funding.

That pathetic episode led to structural changes designed to make sure the funding went where it was legally required to go. Nonetheless, time and apathy have led to schools on the precipice.

After one funding jigger in 2008, charter school payments have remained dead flat at $5450. There have been no adjustments for inflation, no study of costs, no help. Charter Schools are public schools and like all public schools may not charge tuition. They have to manage their budget on that $5450.

In contrast, traditional public schools have always been much better funded and have seen their revenue skyrocket. Seven years ago, per pupil spending was $12,766, almost two-and-a-half times the charter school payment. Their revenue has not been flat. Spending has gone up to $16,199 per pupil in 2014 (according to the state department of education).

Bit by bit, charter school funding has declined in relative terms until they now receive just 33% of the amount traditional public schools get. Everyone expects charter schools to be more efficient but to believe they can survive on just one-third of the funding is either dishonest or silly.

The legislature has traditionally eschewed automatic spending escalators. That’s fine but it requires you to make routine adjustments to the payment you expect the school to run on. Keep in mind this isn’t supplemental aid to pay for one or two things. These payments are expected to pay for virtually all of the capital and operating costs of the school.

This pathetic example of apathy suggests a planning problem with state government. For the last five or so years budget writers have known they were ignoring charter schools. Many of them expressed a willingness to address the problem “next time.” But next time never comes. It’s easier just to ignore the problem and figure some else will fix it but not on your watch. Decisions are always easier if left to be made by someone else.

A bill in the House would start to address the problem but in a kind of half-hearted way. It adds $36 to the payment for next year. That’s not a typo. Rather it’s an attempt to pretend to be doing something. In the second year of the budget, the bill would increase the payment by $1000. So at the end of two years, funding would climb to almost $6500 — which will likely be about 36% of what traditional public schools will receive that year.

After a Herculean effort by some House members to try and find a way to pretend they care, they will drag funding from 33% to 36%. It will still be the lowest spending percentage in the country but someone’s conscience somewhere will be salved.

On the other hand, charter schools struggling to survive and parents desperate the keep their kids in the school they love can shrug their shoulders and say “it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

Charter school opponents can smile to themselves and say “that won’t keep the wolves at bay for very long.” And more apathetic charter school supporters can say “well, we tried to help a little” and then try not to think about it too much.