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October 02. 2012 8:08PM

The BOE's ridiculous charter school moratorium

Two weeks ago, the state Board of Education denied every charter school application before it, citing a financial problem that did not exist. Further, the board's action circumvented legislation and calls into question whether it should be permitted to continue in its role as the state authorizing agency for charter schools. Its bad actions can be fixed, and should be immediately as a gesture of good faith to both the Legislature and the charter school community in New Hampshire.

On Sept. 19, the board 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 appropriations. 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 percent 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 Executive 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 members of the Board of Education claimed to have just received information that everyone in Concord seems to have known. Everyone except, they claim, them.

They claim that the $5 million 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 that has 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 applications prospective schools have spent months on.

As an act of their good faith — of which many people have reason to be skeptical — at its Oct. 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 way to convincing people that they can still be trusted to oversee charter schools.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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