With near-monopoly power, two charter authorizers flout the law

A moratorium on charter schools in New Hampshire may end well after all. The state Board of Education, which is the only active charter authorizer in the Granite State, said about a week ago that it would stop creating new charters until the legislature would adequately fund them. The eight schools the board had approved during the last two years had consumed an additional $5 million in state aid, the board’s chairman argued. There was no money left to fund any more.

This is the second time this month that we’ve seen a public board charged with authorizing charters flouting the law.

Fifteen charters had applied to the board at the time. Seeing the urgency, legislative leaders acted to assure the Board of Education that they would free up money necessary to meet the costs of new schools. That could end the moratorium later this fall, but that still leaves a problem unresolved, one that an editorial today in the Nashua Telegraph pointed out: “We always thought it was the responsibility of the state Board of Education to approve or reject new applications for charter schools based on their merits …”

That is exactly what New Hampshire law says the board must do. No charter authorizer in New Hampshire can set aside its responsibilities to consider an application because it thinks the legislature will ultimately shortchange the school. But this is the second time this month that we’ve seen a public board charged with authorizing charters flouting the law.

Early in September, a member of the Los Angeles school board proposed a moratorium on all new charters in the district until the board could better assess the quality of a sector that now enrolls 15 percent of L.A.’s pupils. The California Charter Schools Association responded appropriately in a letter to the district: Such a moratorium would violate state law. It cited an appellate court ruling, which said that “local school districts are … mandated to approve charters that meet statutory requirements and are consistent with sound education practices.” The law doesn’t empower the board to shirk that responsibility because it wants time to study the performance and practices of all charters.

As with many moves like this, each board seemed to act with antagonism to a burgeoning charter sector, and each used its monopoly power as an authorizer to slow that growth. Yes, the New Hampshire board has approved eight new charter applications in the last two years, but that just brought the total number of charters in the state to ten (the law empowers local school boards to authorize charters, but none do).

It’s hard to imagine that such brazenness will stop at just these two jurisdictions. So long as there are laws that limit charter authorization to one public body, promising charter applicants risk being held hostage to the whims of a political board.

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