A reflection on a panel discussion, by Beatrice Perron
When I went to the panel discussion moderated by Tom Juius, “Creating Viable Charter Schools in New Hampshire,” part of the ANE speaker series, I didn’t hold any expectations. I wasn’t even sure what a charter school was, but soon learned that charter schools are essentially public schools that are formed around a mission or philosophy. It seemed strange to me that having a mission was what made them special; shouldn’t all schools be built on a mission? The idea of a school with a team of teachers who all share in the same educational philosophies seems idyllic. I thought, “This is great, why aren’t there more schools like this?” I soon found out how charter schools in New Hampshire are struggling to thrive with little funding and support.
Panelist John Hunt, state legislator representing Jaffrey, Rindge and Dublin, described his vision of a state where all schools are charter schools and parents are able to seek out schools that perfectly meet their child’s individual needs. When the initial charter school legislation passed, Hunt’s vision didn’t exactly play out as he had envisioned. Because schools are funded by local property taxes in NH, the control to pass and fund charter schools was put into the hands of the local government. The state can’t approve a charter school and require the local government to fund it. Getting a local school board to approve and fund a charter school turned out to be almost impossible.
In 2003, Hunt and colleagues put in legislation for a pilot program. Under the proposed bill, schools could apply directly to the state for approval, and receive state funding to the tune of $3,700 per student; not nearly enough to start and maintain a school. While charter schools began to apply and get approved, they were responsible for funding the additional $6408.08 per student to reach the average $10,108.08 per student that public elementary schools typically spend in a year. Some charter schools applied for seed grants, which helped them with start up costs, but are only available in the first few years of a school’s existence. The remainder of funding has to be found in the form of private donors, grants and school fundraising. As panelist Matora Fiorey, founder of the Surrey Village Charter School, pointed out, with so much attention on fundraising, the school can be distracted from their main purpose; education. There is currently a bill sitting in the Finance committee that would raise existing charter school funds to $7,500 per pupil, but put a freeze on new charter schools for a period. John Hunt doesn’t expect it to be introduced anytime soon.
Aside from finding the funds to run the school, an even greater problem is finding additional funding for special education in charter schools. Panelist Roberta Tenney, Administrator of School Approval with the NHDOE, pointed to the problem of special education as one of charter schools biggest hurdles. While some charter schools are able to work with the existing special education framework of a district, some don’t have as much luck. The Laurent Clerc Charter Academy, a bilingual school which used both English and American Sign Language, had to close because of a lack of special needs funding.
With all the hurdles charter schools have to deal with, there are over 10 in New Hampshire that are doing great things for students. Whether arts-based, place-based or equestrian focused, some are in danger of not opening in following years because of funding issues. Though it is sad that we may lose such wonderful assets to our educational system, it was refreshing to see a group of educators and politicians so committed to bringing these types of schools to New Hampshire .
For more information on this subject, listen to New Hampshire Public Radio’s, The Exchange, aired on October 31st at http://www.nhpr.org/node/13972.