Lawmakers reject grant to double public charter schools

Fourth-graders from Mill Falls Charter School in Manchester worked on a project about space in this Union Leader file photo.

CONCORD — In rejecting part of a $46 million federal grant to create new charter schools, legislators raised questions about the sustainability of the state’s existing charter schools and about how effective state oversight has been.

A decade-old report shows the same questions have been swirling around New Hampshire’s public charter schools since the first ones opened in 2004.

During Friday’s hearing, Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, said he has concerns about charter school finances. The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee had asked the Department of Education to provide recent audits of charter schools.

“The audits revealed a common thread: lack of financial viability,” he said.

He said on average, the public charter schools get three-quarters of their funding from the state. “Without state aid, these charter schools would all quickly fail,” he said.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said it is appropriate that charter schools get much of their funding from the state; a charter school is a public school, he said.

The state law governing charter schools suggests charters are expected to privately raise money to match the state funding they receive.

Charter schools, the law reads, “shall match funds provided by the state through private contributions in order to receive funding that exceeds the state’s average per pupil cost.”

A 2007 review commissioned by the Department of Education found little evidence that charter schools were raising enough money to stay afloat.

Data provided this month by the department showed wide variation in how much money schools are able to raise.

The Academy for Science and Design in Nashua reported the most fundraising success, with $220,000 in grants and donations last fiscal year. Compass Classical Academy in Franklin raised just $711 in the same period.

Fundraising can vary widely from year to year: Kreiva Academy in Manchester received a $150,000 start-up grant in 2017, but raised less than $10,000 in the 2019 fiscal year.

The 2007 report noted how unpredictable fundraising was one factor that limited charter school growth. The charter schools that have closed in New Hampshire all cited financial problems as part of the reason.

On Friday, Leishman and Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Merrimack, wondered what effect new charter schools would have on the fundraising ability of existing schools.

Lawmakers rejected the part of a federal grant that would have almost doubled the number of charter schools in the state.

Asked what effect 27 new charter schools could have on the fundraising ability of New Hampshire’s existing charter schools, Matt Southerton, president of the New Hampshire Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he was not concerned about a growing number of charter schools competing for the same donors.

Different charter schools raise money from different constituencies, he said. If a new school opened, he thought it would likely have a different pool of prospective donors than other charter schools.

Southerton also said he wished the state would increase funding for all public schools.

On Friday, Leishman said that reading the charter schools’ financial audits made him concerned with the lack of fiscal oversight of public charter schools. The 2007 report raised similar concerns about oversight, both from the state and from the schools’ own boards of trustees.

While Edelblut noted that financial irresponsibility was hardly exclusive to charter schools, he said the department is working to put more oversight in place.

“I agree with you 100 percent that we want to have effective oversight in our public charter schools, and in our traditional public schools as well.”

A “charter school coordinator” position at the Department of Education was created in the last budget. The grant rejected Friday would have created two more oversight positions.

Those two administrators would have been tasked with overseeing the $46 million grant, and providing more oversight to charter schools.

Sunday, January 26, 2020
Friday, January 24, 2020