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March 03. 2013 9:59PM

House vote could set stage for new charter schools

CONCORD ­- The state House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Wednesday on charter school legislation that could set the stage for an end to a moratorium on new charters imposed in September by the Board of Education.

If the preliminary measure is approved in the House, it will go to the House Finance Committee for review, prior to a final vote, after which the Senate will have to act before the bill goes to the governor for her signature.

There's still a long legislative path ahead, but charter school supporters are more optimistic than they have been for years, given that Gov. Maggie Hassan has included additional money for new charter schools in her budget proposal for the next biennium.

The House Education Committee voted 11-8 to endorse the measure, and many of those "no" votes were not votes against charter schools, but against sending the bill to the Finance Committee before the governor's budget was presented, according to Education Committee Chair Mary Gile, D-Concord.

"As it turns out, the governor has a very generous amount of money in her budget for charter schools, so there is no problem at this point," she said.

Hassan has proposed increasing charter school funding by about $5.5 million to allow for eight new schools over the next two years, and expansion at seven existing locations.

The governor's budget proposes eliminating a tax credit for businesses that provide scholarships for students who attend private schools, and would use that money instead to increase charter school funding. The House has voted to eliminate the tax credit, but the Senate has yet to do so.

Many moving parts

There are still many moving parts, but charter school supporters hope to see three to four new charter school openings in the year ahead.

In September, the state Board of Education imposed the moratorium, citing a $5 million shortfall in state education aid to charter schools for the fiscal year. The problem arose when state law governing charter schools was changed in 2011 to cap the expenditures for charter schools, rather than allow open-ended funding based on the number of schools approved by the state.

The Legislature allocates $3,450 per student to every school in the state to help ensure an adequate education, as required by the state Supreme Court. Charter school advocates have argued that these so-called "adequacy grants" should simply follow the student if he or she enrolls in a charter school. Their position has been that once a school is approved by the Board of Education, the adequacy grant merely needs to be redirected, so there should be no "cap."

But the state Board of Education and the attorney general argued that the 2011 changes closed open-ended funding to charter schools until a new budget is passed or the law is changed.

HB299 would change the law to allow funding for any charter schools the Board of Education deems worthy of approval.

The Board of Education and the attorney general have both said they would welcome the clarity such a change could provide; the House Education Committee has approved it; and the National Education Association in New Hampshire, representing most teachers in the state, is not opposed, although it has not endorsed the measure, according to Scott McGilvray, NEA-NH president.

"The role of the state Board of Education is to approve or not approve a charter school on its merits," said Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, a nonprofit charter school advocacy group. "Funding or no funding is the Legislature's responsibility, and if we can get the law changed back to what it was, my belief is we will achieve that separation again."

Popular choices

Since 2003, the state has authorized 17 charter schools that currently serve about 2,500 students statewide, compared to 179,000 in the public school systems, said Southerton. One of the most popular, the Academy for Science and Design in Nashua, is at capacity with 425 students in grades 6-12, while the Seacoast Charter School in Kingston has 200 students. "Any charter school that has been open more than five years is maxed out," said Southerton.

Charter schools are public schools whose students are chosen by lottery if there are more applications than space.

"They operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools but agree to greater accountability," according to the state Board of Education website.

"In exchange for this accountability, charter schools have the freedom to choose the methods and processes they believe will best help the school deliver results. Innovative teaching practices and strategies, class structure and other academic tools can be used and tested and then quickly modified to meet the needs of the student population ... There typically is significant community involvement and support."

The charter school applications that were furthest along the pipeline when the moratorium began are the most likely to be approved if all the funding questions are resolved.

According to Southerton, those schools are:

--Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Nashua, a K-6 school with a focus on the arts, expecting to enroll 100 students;

--Mountain Village Charter Montessori School, K-6, in Plymouth, expecting to enroll 60;

--Seacoast Charter School for the Arts, grades 9-12, in the Seacoast area, expecting to enroll 100.

Southerton said one of the most promising applications was withdrawn on Jan. 17 "because of the politics involved." The Innovative Futures Technology Academy near Dover was going to be a science and technology school for grades 8-12 in the Dover area.

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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