Charlie Arlinghaus

May 27, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Oddly, State Senators who claim to be supportive of charter schools are doing their best to destroy them. Perhaps charter schools would have been better off to have outright enemies in charge rather than pretend supporters whose token gestures will do more to close these alternative schools than active opposition would.

After years of apathy toward charter schools, the state Senate has signaled its intention to out-mediocre the House and offer these schools the most nominal of Band-Aids that will help the schools almost not at all but create the tiniest of fig leafs for a handful of politicians.

New Hampshire is one of 43 states that have charter schools, which are alternative public schools that charge no tuition and are open to all. The goal of this reform has always been to provide alternatives for students. No one school can possibly serve every single student assigned by zip code equally well.

These innovative alternatives have proven popular with students and parents alike. They serve as a small but valuable part of the public education system. About 2 percent of the 183,000 students in New Hampshire’s public system are enrolled in charter schools.

Charters are an alternative system, and it was always anticipated they would cost somewhat less than the traditional school. But that gap has grown and grown and grown. The Legislature has been promising for each of the last three or four budgets that something will be done to address the cost issue. When the charter school appropriation was set in 2008 at $5,450 per student, no one thought that amount would be stagnant for the next decade.

At the time, traditional public schools spent an average of $12,935 per student (according to the state Department of Education). Since then, spending at traditional public schools has increased to $17,233 in the current school year. In contrast, charter schools have languished at $5,450 — just 32 percent of the funding at the other public schools.

I was critical when the House passed a lackluster proposal to increase spending by just $36 and then an additional $1,000 two school years from now. I felt sure at the time that senators would regard the House action as lackluster too.Unfortunately, the Senate decided to double down on mediocrity. Most senators have known and have been willing to say publicly for the last five years that it was difficult and getting close to impossible for charter schools to exist on an amount that was well below operating costs seven years ago. Schools were misled to believe that if they could survive the drought that the obvious cost issue would be redressed this year. But as has happened so often in the past, the hope was futile. The Legislature is poised to do the moral equivalent of nothing.

Senators have kept the $36 increase in the budget for next year. I don’t think I’m the only one who regards the $36 as such a small amount as to resemble an inside joke, with budget writers snickering as they include it in the budget. They also lowered the second-year adjustment to $250.

Over the last seven years, traditional public schools have seen an increase of $4,298 per student. To adjust charter schools, senators propose $286, which they describe as very generous. Despite that, one senator was heard, quite nonsensically, to object to charter schools getting more money than traditional schools.

Senators know, though perhaps they don’t believe, that the average charter school finds that costs exceed revenue by between $2,000 and $2,500 per student. Without any deep investigation, that seems quite sensible. Even if funding were to increase by $2,000, charter schools would still spend less than half per student what traditional schools do.

While supporters have always claimed these educational alternatives would be cost effective, proponents never suggested they would make do with 30 cents on the dollar.

This is not, nor need it be, a partisan issue. The original bill was signed by Republican Gov. Craig Benson. As a state senator, current Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan took the first steps to address funding issues in 2008. Since then, no one kept up.

The state cannot pretend to have charter schools as a legitimate educational alternative and then give them an amount that does not come close to covering the cost of the program. If legislators don’t know how dismal current funding levels are, it is simply because they haven’t bothered to find out. If they do know, their token gesture is merely a not very well disguised attempt to see these schools go away.

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.

Charlie Arlinghaus

May 7, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Governor Hassan made a mistake by nominating someone engaged in an ongoing lawsuit against the state to regulate the area over which he’s still suing. The mistake is not one of policy but one of propriety. The nomination can and should be withdrawn before tomorrow’s vote of the Executive Council.

Bill Duncan and I don’t agree at all on education policy but that does not and should not have any bearing on the propriety of his nomination to the State Board of Education. What’s inappropriate is that he’s currently engaged in suing the state in this very area – the area he’s being tapped to oversee.

After the state’s school choice scholarship law passed in 2012, opponents of that filed a lawsuit to overturn it. That lawsuit, known as Duncan v. New Hampshire, is ongoing. A recent headline missed this when it said that “State Board of Education nominee had sued state over education funding.” The tense of that headline is wrong and that distinction makes all the difference.

As the article makes clear, the lawsuit is ongoing. So the governor has nominated someone to the State Board of Education who is currently suing the state over education policy. He didn’t once upon a time sue the state. He hasn’t expressed concerns. He is currently engaged in lawsuit – a lawsuit named after him – and is going to oversee that area – the area of his ONGOING lawsuit. Does the governor not see that this is a trifle odd?

As a matter of policy, we should not appoint plaintiffs of ongoing lawsuits to oversee the area of state policy over which they are suing. Ever. The governor could find plenty of liberals she could appoint to the State Board who don’t happen to be currently suing the state of New Hampshire over education policy.

This problem can occur when you seek out activists for appointment to oversight positions. Previous governor have rarely sought activists for these oversight positions. Craig Benson, for example, selected a respected local businessman Fred Bramante to chair the board. John Lynch also avoided activists and those who had been lobbying the legislature for his appointments. His selected chairman was another respected local businessman, Tom Raffio, who remains in that position.

Something Benson and Lynch – and their predecessors – agreed on: not one of them ever appointed someone suing the state over education to oversee education policy. Nor did they appoint anyone else enmeshed in an ongoing lawsuit to oversee the subject of that lawsuit. Tax lawyers suing the state weren’t appointed to run Revenue Administration. Prison activists engaged in an ongoing lawsuit didn’t take charge of corrections.

No sensible person, looking at this outside of a political lens could argue the merits of appointing ongoing plaintiffs.

Adding another wrinkle to this is one unique role of the State Board. The State Board of Education charters, authorizes, and regulates almost every charter school in the state. Mr. Duncan, aside from suing over other issues is regarded by the charter school community as leader of their opposition. He’s on the other side from them in every debate. He has said “charter schools are a political statement not an educational improvement.” He’s referred to them as “dismantling public education” and called them a “distraction.” Despite that he says he supports charter schools. You can see, however, why the charter schools of the state might be skeptical.

These views of his – and by extension the governor who nominated him – are a policy choice. They are free to make that policy choice (with which I obviously disagree). But should someone with such demonstrated hostility to charter schools be placed on their oversight and authorizing board?

That’s a policy choice the governor is free to make. His hostility to such schools makes his selection slightly disingenuous on the part of a governor who claims to be supportive of charters but it is not structurally disqualifying. I expect that a fully qualified nominee she picks with have equally doctrinaire liberal views on the matter.

I don’t want to lose sight of what is disqualifying. I said this before but is worth repeating: As a matter of policy, we should not appoint plaintiffs of ongoing lawsuits to oversee the area of state policy over which they are suing. Ever.

Charlie Arlinghaus

January 30, 2013

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Educational opportunity is something we all want for our children but is under threat in New Hampshire in 2013. While the wealthy can choose among many options to find the best fit for their children, two small programs that increase options for poor people in New Hampshire are both under attack. If opponents succeed in killing the state’s modest charter school program and the school choice scholarship program, educational opportunity will still be a reality for rich people but not for poorer members of the Granite State.

For the wealthy, options abound. If you have the means, you can afford to choose among many different choices for your children. While New Hampshire’s has better schools than most states, no one seriously believes that one school is the best possible choice for every student in a particular zip code without exception. More opportunity, more choices lead to better outcomes.

Education reformers passed a public charter school law in 2003. The idea was to create innovative alternative schools that allowed students, particularly those who can’t afford existing alternatives, another public choice in education.

Similarly, last year the legislature passed a modest program of school choice scholarships allowing tax credits for businesses that donate to organizations that give scholarships to students of lower levels of income. The program is just starting but promises to give poorer children another choice.

From the beginning, both opportunity programs have been under attack. The charter school program endured the apathy of lawmakers and the governor who merely shrugged their shoulders when a school district strangled the first charter school by neglecting to pass on the funding appropriated for the school. Enforcing that law was a bridge too far.

Future legislatures and funding formulas changed the law to eliminate the opportunity for criminal mischief but opponents aren’t done. The state board of education has been guided by the odd advice of one state lawyer claiming that the board is no longer permitted to authorize charter schools because the next budget hasn’t been passed so they have no idea if there is going to be funding. Logically, then, they can’t grant any school a five year charter because we only have a two year budget.

This contorted logic, by the way, would also suggest the closure of every other charter school (after all, the next legislature could theoretically not fund them either) and most public schools (the legislature could suddenly decide we’ll only have 14 really big schools and no one else gets money). That’s ridiculous of course, but so is the back door moratorium.

If there is ambiguity (and I don’t honestly believe there is nor did the legislature which passed the law the lawyer claims frustrates the board), it can be cleared up. Funding is the province of the legislature. Approval of schools by the board includes a financial component but the board was never meant to try and prognosticate future funding decisions of the legislature. Any cap or retreat from the policy of opportunity should be decided by the legislature not by administrative fiat or a legal opinion that has not been written down or presented for public discussion. Law is currently being determined by a private, unpublished, oral opinion.

The second attempt to limit opportunity is being conducted openly in the legislature. Opponents are trying to repeal last year’s school choice law. The law limits scholarships to students in the lower half of incomes in the state but would allow tax credits for a group that would let parents use the scholarship at any approved school in the state. This law, like the charter school law, is about opportunity for people who have limited educational opportunities today.

Scholarships will average $2500 but that small amount can make a radical difference in the life of an individual child. Today, every non-public school has some students who pay no tuition and some who pay a small amount based on need. The modest scholarship will allow every school to accept more students who pay zero and more who pay little.

It’s easy to lose sight of the goal of educational opportunity in all the ideological banter. When the liberal Washington Post editorialized in favor of a D.C. opportunity program reminded us all what this debate is about. Their editorial titled “The Right Answer” concluded: “What shouldn’t get forgotten in this seemingly endless fight are the people with the most at stake: parents who simply want what’s best for their children.”

Charlie Arlinghaus

October 3, 2012

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Two weeks ago, the state board of education denied every charter school application before them citing a financial problem that didn’t exist. Further their action circumvented legislation and calls into question whether they should be permitted to continue in their role as the state authorizing agency for charter schools. Their bad actions can be fixed and they should do so immediately as a gesture of good faith to both the legislature itself and the charter school community in New Hampshire.

On September 19, the state board of education considered an agenda item listed as “update on charter schools.” In just three minutes the board voted to deny all pending charter school applications. Rather than an open discussion, the pre-planned moratorium came complete with a pre-drafted statement despite a claim by a board member that the vote was spurred by information “we’ve just received.” Usually show trials are better choreographed.

The ostensible reason cited by the department and its board was a supposed uncertainty about state appropriations. Yet there is no uncertainty about state negotiations. Everyone in Concord knows and has known for more than a year precisely where we are on charter school funding. Further, the schools that have been denied would have had no impact on the budget whatsoever. They don’t start operating until the budget cycle is over.

Charter school funding, like a number of state aid programs, is an eligibility program. Rather than a cap, it is a budgeted amount based on qualified recipients (a number of grant programs operate this way) The state budgets an amount based on projections of probable enrollment but it is an estimate rather than a fixed cap. During the state budget, legislators were made aware that the department’s projections of enrollment were well off the mark. To compensate, clear language was inserted into the budget that made it crystal clear that the money was available, would be made available easily, and what the procedure would be to follow.

In the budget law, the department was given carte blanche to spend amounts that were 110% of the estimate in the budget. The budget added “In the event that chartered public school tuition payments exceed budgeted amounts by over 10 percent, the department of education may expend funds in excess of said amounts, with the approval of the fiscal committee of the general court and governor and council.”

This isn’t a little known provision in the law. In fact, the department and the chairman of the fiscal committee Ken Weyler were well aware of the provision, have been in regular communication on it, and have already acted on it once. For the previous fiscal year, an additional $330,000 was approved by the fiscal committee in June and the Governor and Council in July.

Rep. Weyler has said he was well aware that the amount for the current fiscal year would be $5 million and was waiting for it to come before the fiscal committee which he expects to approve it.

Let’s be clear: the law presumed the money would be approved. The fiscal committee and Executive Council have both been very supportive of charter schools. Yet the Board of Education claimed to have just received information which everyone in Concord seems to have known except, they claim, them.

They claim that the $5 million which the legislature expects and has known about for a year and has told them in the law they may spend so long as they get approval somehow requires them to veto a group of charter schools which regardless have no impact at all on the current budget.

This ridiculous action – and there is no other word for it but ridiculous — is easily amended. The board could easily have said to charter schools “we don’t want to act on your application pending guidance from the legislature after we tell them how much this will impact the next budget.” Instead they denied application prospective schools have spent months on.

As an act of their good faith – of which many people have reason to be skeptical – at its October 17 meeting the board should rescind its blanket denial of charters. It may be reasonable to wait until the fiscal committee acts before formally approving any charters but there is no reason to wait to admit their mistake, apologize to school organizers, and rescind their incorrect action.

Supporters of the charter school movement and legislators in particular have every reason to be skeptical of the good intentions of the current state board of education. A gesture of good faith would go a long to convincing people that they can still be trusted to oversee charter schools.