Charter schools are publicly-funded independent schools and may not charge tuition. They are considered part of the state school system and are accountable to state and federal authorities for compliance with the terms of their founding contract or charter, which often includes achievement-based standards.
Charter schools are not subject to all of the same regulations as traditional public schools, which some argue grants them autonomy for broader experimentation or innovation than may be possible within the standard public school system.
Charter schools in NH
Charter schools were legalized in New Hampshire in 1995. The law required prospective schools to get authorization from local school boards. However, no charter schools were successful in getting local approval. As a response, in 2003, the law was amended to enable the State Board of Education to approve charter schools. The first NH charter schools opened in 2005, fueled by the receipt of a federal start-up grant.
Currently, there are 28 charter schools operating within New Hampshire. As of March 2018, there were 3,543 students enrolled in NH charter schools, constituting just under 2% of the state’s total student population.
Starting a charter school
Charter schools in New Hampshire may be founded by:
- A nonprofit organization such as a college, service club, or advocacy group
- A group of two or more certified New Hampshire teachers
- A group of ten or more parents
All charter schools must apply for authorization, receiving approval via a local school district, a town vote, or the Board of Education. Charters are valid for a term of five years, at which point a school must apply for renewal.
Currently, only one charter school in New Hampshire has succeeded in getting approval from a local district. All other charter schools were approved by the Board of Education.
The Board of Education cannot approve new charter schools unless funding for them has been included in the state budget or has been secured elsewhere. In the past, a lack of state funds has led to a moratorium on new charter school approvals.
Charter school rules
New Hampshire requires that charter schools comply with the following rules:
- At least 50% of teachers must be New Hampshire-certified or have at least three years of teaching experience.
- Charter schools are not required to participate in collective bargaining agreements negotiated by their school district.
- Charter schools must accept all students who apply, so long as they are residents of New Hampshire. If the number of applications exceeds the school’s capacity, a lottery must be held to select those who will be offered a place. However:
- State law allows charter schools to give preference to students from the district in which they are located.
- Charter schools may design their own application processes, which can include essays and interviews.
- School districts are only required to offer transportation for charter school students living within the school’s district. Those coming from outside the district must make their own transportation arrangements.
- Charter school curriculums must meet or exceed state standards.
- A maximum of 10% of a district’s resident pupils may transfer to a charter school during any school year, unless a local school board approves lifting this restriction.
Charter school funding
Funding for charter schools in New Hampshire varies based on how the school was authorized.
- Schools authorized by a local school board are financed by that board’s school district. For every pupil in schools approved this way, the district has to grant them at least 80% of average per-pupil expenditure at the district’s traditional public schools.
- Schools authorized by the state Board of Education are financed directly by the state and receive $6,972.27 in state funding for each pupil as a base rate, with more for kids receiving free lunch, English language-learners, and third-graders who aren't yet proficient in reading. This funding is scheduled to increase every year, with the amount of the increase determined by the rise in the Consumer Price Index.
However, because traditional public schools generally raise quite a bit of additional money from local taxpayers, charter school per-pupil reimbursement rates are lower than average per-pupil expenditures at traditional public schools, which averaged $15,310 in 2017. Charter schools therefore seek funding from additional sources, including:
- Start-up funds from federal grants. These may provide funding for up to three years, including up to 18 months of planning and program design;
- Federal school funds, including funding through the No Child Left Behind Act and Title I;
- Donations, fundraising, and other grant sources.
Charter school accountability
Though charter schools are exempt from many of the regulations governing traditional public schools, New Hampshire law does require several levels of accountability.
- Charter school contracts must include academic goals and benchmarks, and must also specify the tests or other means that will be used to assess whether the school has succeeded in meeting those goals. If a school fails to meet those goals, its charter cannot be renewed.
- Charters can also be revoked before the end of the five-year term if a school is shown to be in violation of the standards or procedures of its charter, or for fiscal mismanagement or instability.
- Charter school boards must regularly report to the Board of Education on their academic progress and financial status.
- Charter schools must be insured, and facilities must pass state health inspections.
- Charter schools are audited by the Department of Education at least once every three years.
Charter school effectiveness
Statewide assessment results show NH charter school students generally performing better than traditional public school students, with higher proficiency in both math and reading. However, critics argue that comparisons of overall test performance are misleading, as charter schools and traditional schools do not have equivalent student populations in terms of learning ability and special needs.
Studies comparing students who ‘won’ charter school lotteries and were enrolled with those who participated in the lottery but did not secure a place are considered a more reliable measure of comparative performance. However, no such study has yet been undertaken in New Hampshire. A recent nationwide study of this type by the U.S. Department of Education found that on average, charter school performance was neither better or worse than that at traditional schools. However, the study noted that impact on performance varied greatly between individual charter schools.
Possible policy responses
- Charter school advocates have called for per-pupil funding to be raised to come more into line with average expenditures at traditional public schools.
- Others have called for implementation of a cap or moratorium on new charter school approvals, citing budgetary concerns.
- Teachers unions and others have sought to increase the percentage of charter school teachers required to have New Hampshire certification.
- In recent years, legislators have sought to alternately strengthen or relax the rules guiding approval of new charter schools.
- Some have called for greater oversight of charter schools, including on-site reviews, requiring schools to submit details of use of funds and fiscal policies for review, and monitoring potential conflicts of interest.
“NH should provide more funding for charter schools.”
- As charter schools are freed from many of the regulations restricting other public schools, they are more able to innovate and potentially discover successful new models for education.
- Charter schools provide families with more options for schooling, enabling them to find a program that best matches the needs of their individual child.
- Current reimbursement rates mean that charter schools must try to compete with far less resources than those enjoyed at traditional public schools. This is unfair to charter school teachers and students.
- Charter schools create competition for students, which motivates public schools to strive for greater excellence.
“NH should not provide more funding for charter schools.”
- Charter school populations are self-selecting, as the more active and engaged parents are the ones who apply. This means charter school populations may lack equal proportions of disabled or special needs students, who are then thrust in greater numbers on the traditional public school system.
- Charter schools are not a fiscally efficient solution to the need for innovation and experimentation in education, as they in effect require taxpayers to fund two separate types of school systems. It would be most cost effective to focus energy on improving existing schools.
- Reports of fraud, waste, and other abuses by charter schools necessitate the implementation of a more rigorous, proactive form of oversight before more funding is authorized.
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