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Charles Arlinghaus: My Wednesday mistake and the mixed-up charter numbers

March 20. 2014 11:08PM

In Wednesday's column about a misleading attack on charter school funding, I made a big mistake. I want to correct my mistake, which was about the source of some very misleading information, and explain how I made it. I'll also explain the problem with the information in question. It is important that you feel free to agree or disagree with my conclusions, but not have cause to doubt my information.

In the debate over a House charter school funding bill, a document was circulated that contradicted the official fiscal note provided by the state's Department of Education (DOE). The inaccurate analysis didn't look like documents produced by the DOE normally do. It was a quasi-fiscal note that was the opposite of the official fiscal note the DOE produced, and it made errors that seemed to stem from a misunderstanding of state law. I — quite wrongly — concluded that the document posted only on an anti-charter blog was not produced by the Department of Education, while the document that contradicted it and still is the official legislative fiscal note from the department was authentic.

In fact, the department produced and still supports both documents despite their contradictions. I made the mistake by making an assumption simply on the basis of the contradiction. That was wrong.

However, it is still true that the information was misleading and inaccurate in one very important way and a few less critical ways. The very bad information is still clearly contradicted by the official fiscal note produced by the Department of Education.

Rep. Ken Weyler sponsored House Bill 435 (now sent to a study committee) to fund the regular public charter schools at 50 percent of average public school spending. Rep. Weyler proposed amending it to 47.5 percent. The bill did not apply to the state's virtual charter school. That school, because of its different nature and different role, has been funded by an agreement which provides a set number of dollars for a specific number of full-time equivalent students.

That funding for the virtual school, which has about half as many students as the other 21 schools combined, was unaffected. Not including it made the Weyler bill affordable. There were no misunderstandings about this from sponsors or opponents, and the official fiscal note from the DOE made clear the department was "assuming this bill will have no impact on the Department's memorandum of understanding" with the virtual school.

The official fiscal note assumed funding would cover 2,884 students, which would then make the increased funding fall within the current state budget without adjustment.

About a month later, the contrary document began circulating. It buttressed an argument made by anti-charter activists who wanted to use a much larger number and assume very significant growth to posit an unaffordable price tag. While the fiscal note doesn't project beyond next year, the contrary document goes out four years.

The real problem, though, is a decision to change and also to not change the assumptions about virtual school funding. On the one side, the contrary document changed the assumption so it could presume 4,133 students, a 40 percent increase that makes the bill's costs appear somewhat more dramatic if extended four years. Yet, at the same time, the department chose not to change the fiscal note attached to the bill, which uses the opposite assumption. The official note assumes, as the bill's author and everyone else did, that the virtual school is unchanged. The contrary note reverses that assumption but leaves the fiscal note as-is.

One of those two documents is wrong. If one is right, the other must be quite wrong in its central assumption. The same author, the state Department of Education, cannot make two financial estimates based on contrary central assumptions. Yet it did and continues to stand by both documents.

There are criticisms of some other assumptions the contrary document made, but most others are a matter of debate. At its core, the real problem is one author has contradicted itself and let stand two competing and irreconcilable descriptions of a single bill — the official fiscal note and its rebuttal.

Legislators are provided authoritative fiscal notes on bills to help them understand the financial implications of policy as a point of information in decision making. Those notes, attached to the legislation itself, can and often are revised. This note wasn't.

Rep. Weyler drafted a floor amendment to make clear what everyone already knew before DOE's dueling interpretations created confusion: that the bill didn't affect the virtual funding. But by then it was too late. A bill that had passed by 54 votes before being sent to the Finance Committee died by 16 votes simply on the basis of confused financial information.

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

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