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.