Charles Arlinghaus: A brazen attempt to hold schools hostage
New Hampshire's charter school law has been in limbo for the better part of a year. The Attorney General's Office has told the state Board of Education that its interpretation of language passed last session prohibits the board from allowing any new schools to open. Oddly, the authors of that language intended precisely the opposite.
This session, to clear up the misunderstanding or competing interpretations, legislation was proposed to restore the old statutory language. The sole purpose of such a change is to clarify the board's ability to authorize schools and resolve the attorney general's objection.
How controversial is this bill? It isn't. The bill was endorsed by the House Education committee and passed the full House on a voice vote. Nor is this a partisan issue. The current governor has a history of being supportive of charter schools and her budget includes the funding to open a few more each of the next two years. This legislation makes that possible.
Further according to a recent news report "the Board of Education and the Attorney General have both said they would welcome the clarity such a change could provide."
So without any concerted opposition, this common-sense legislation should pass quickly so the new schools everyone agrees should be authorized can open and be ready for the school year starting in September. So it would have seemed until political gamesmanship entered the stage.
Although it has already passed the House once, the bill has to go before the House Finance Committee. It was in Finance that the games began. Rep. Dan Eaton saw the bill as a political pawn to be held hostage.
Eaton is a particularly powerful member of House Democratic leadership. He is both majority floor leader (a key parliamentary position) and chairman of division 2 of House Finance (one of the most important budget writing positions).
In a public hearing, Eaton discussed with a lobbyist testifying before the committee his idea that the House neither pass nor defeat the bill. Instead, he wanted to hold the bill - and therefore the ability of the government to authorize new charter schools that the governor and state board are ready to support - hostage to future budget negotiations.
Eaton said "I'm looking at this as political. I want to have a trump card or two, and this is a healthy trump card" for a future negotiation with the Senate over the state budget.
Consider what he's saying: He liked the bill and supports the policy, but he believes he can use the bill as part of a hostage negotiation with the Senate. He wants to say to the Senate "I know you want this, but we'll kill it even though we like it too unless you do something else we want that is completely unrelated."
Without question, some give and take and normal compromise will be part of a budget process. Everyone expects the House and Senate to pass different budgets and to then negotiate over the details of what gets included. But this bill isn't part of that process and wouldn't be part of that negotiation unless Eaton gets to keep it captive in a back room. In effect, he's looking at charter schools and saying, "I'm sorry you got caught in the crossfire, but I think I can sell you for a good price."
The governor's budget plans on five additional charter schools opening in September. The state Board of Education has said there are five schools ready to be authorized as soon as this language is in place. What no one counted on was Eaton's desire to "have a trump card or two."
Every session there are maverick legislators who go off on their own with some half-baked plan. But remember that Dan Eaton is no maverick backbencher. What makes this attempted abuse of power harder to excuse is that he's one of the most powerful members of leadership. Division chair of House Finance is one of the most powerful positions in the House, as is majority floor leader, and he has both jobs.
There's a simple solution here: kill it or pass it. The bill isn't complicated. You want to authorize new schools or you want to extend a moratorium. But don't hold schools hostage to your Machiavellian budget gamesmanship.
Charles Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord. He can be reached at Arlinghaus@JBartlett.org.