House Bill 563 is a piece of paper that may not mean much to most Granite State residents.

But to administrators, teachers, parents and students at the state's charter schools, lawmakers' passage of the legislation could make a world of difference.

Leaders at Southern New Hampshire charter schools say the bill, which would increase their state funding by more than $1,000 per student, would provide a major boost to their financially strapped budgets.

For Dael Angelico-Hart, head of school at The Birches Academy of Academics and Art in Salem, that extra money would help pay the 2-year-old school's basic operating costs. It would help fund a $1.5 million annual budget.

"This would help pay our electrical bills," she said. "It would be an absolute game changer."

The same can be said for the 240-student Seacoast Charter School, which has operated in Kingston for a decade, according to Head of School Peter Durso. It's the longest-running charter school in New Hampshire.

"It would just go to keep the doors open," Durso said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, is one of at least a half dozen aimed at improving charter schools. Weyler is also the lead sponsor of another bill, which would establish a commission to administer the schools' approval and operation.  

Charter schools are public schools that often provide students with a specialized education in the arts or math and science. There are two dozen in the state, according to New Hampshire Board of Education Chairman Thomas Raffio.

Critics have called the schools elitist institutions, saying they take funding away from traditional public schools. 

Raffio disagrees.   

"There is definitely a place for charter schools," he said. "They definitely have a niche, they have had a lot of success. ... We are generally in support of them, but the well is only so deep in terms of funding."

The state Department of Education has provided $5,498 for each charter school student in grades 1 through 12. That's 40 percent of the approximately $13,700 spent to educate traditional public school students.

Under current law, funding increases to at least $5,561 for those same charter school students next year, according to the Department of Education. 

Charter schools would receive $3,780 for each kindergartner. The statewide cost per pupil in 2015-2016 would be $15,011.

HB 563, whose co-sponsors include Republican Reps. Robert Elliott and Gary Azarian of Salem, raises the 40 percent allotment to 50 percent, Weyler said. He sponsored a similar bill last session that was defeated.

If passed, charter schools would receive $7,505 per student compared to $15,011 for other public schools students.

Every bit of funding helps

While full funding would be ideal, the additional 10 percent in funding would help lessen the gap, Weyler said.

It also helps provide more resources to schools Weyler said are offering students a better, more diversified education than traditional public schools.

Weyler said he's visited Seacoast Charter School and the new Granite State Arts Academy in Derry. He said he walked away impressed after speaking to administrators, parents and students.   

"For some of them, it's the difference between day and night," he said of the students. "Kids who hated school are saying, 'Can I go? Can  I go?"' 

But because of limited state funding, charter schools are having a tough time making ends meet, Weyler said. They must rely heavily on fundraising to come up with the money needed to continue operating, he said.

That means they must mostly hire entry-level teachers, who then leave the school after a few years for better paying jobs at traditional schools, Weyler said.

The schools must also provide and outfit their own buildings without help from taxpayers.

"These schools are struggling," Weyler said.

Of the 28 charter schools to open in the state in the last decade, four have closed because of financial difficulties, Raffio said.  

Elliott, a former teacher and House Education Committee member, agrees more must be done to help charter schools. He said he was particularly impressed after visiting The Birches Academy.  

Charter schools are becoming an increasingly popular educational alternative for families, Elliott said, especially for children who feel lost in traditional public schools.

"Parents with gifted children don't feel their child is getting enough attention," he said.

Charter school administrators said the additional funding per student would be a bonus. 

"I hope something comes of these bills," Angelico-Hart said. "It's just so crucial. Fifty percent would be huge."

Thomas Frischknecht, a board member and executive director of The Founders Academy in nearby Manchester, agreed.

Frischknecht, like other administrators, is keeping a close eye on charter school legislation, especially Weyler's funding bill.

"Obviously, we are very interested in the bills for additional funding," he said. "For us, getting even $1,000 more per student means getting a science lab or teacher. It's significant for us." 

The administrators' optimism was followed by Gov. Maggie Hassan's announcement Thursday that her proposed $11.5 billion biennial budget includes more money for charter schools.

"This budget will help encourage innovation by providing an additional $19 million in charter school funding over the biennium to allow for growth in the charter school population and to allow for new charter schools," Hassan said.

Weyler said the Democratic governor's proposal is wishful thinking.

"Of course, we don't have $19 million, $19 million is a stretch," he said. 

The proposed increase comes only a few years after New Hampshire adopted a moratorium on the establishment of charter schools because of restricted state funding. 

Weyler has also introduced second bill because he said he believes a commission is needed to ensure charter schools' needs are being met under state guidelines. Sixteen other states have similar commissions, he said.

The nine-member commission also would grant approval for new charter schools, he said. The entire process is now overseen by the state Board of Education, which Weyler criticizes for taking months to review applications.

His bill requires a decision be made within 30 days.

Several other charter school bills being considered this session do everything from tighten application requirements to establish a panel to study issues related to special education services at the schools. 

Schools continue to grow 

Charter schools in Southern New Hampshire say any additional funding they receive would help with their plans for future growth. This comes as they begin accepting new students for this fall.

Enrollment will increase next fall at Next Charter School in Derry, from 45 to 60 high school students, co-director Justin Krieger said. Students and students are excited about moving to a new location, he said.

Frischknecht said The Founders Academy plans to double its enrollment. The school will have 200 students in 2015-2016 after opening last fall with 100 students.

Granite State Arts Academy, which also opened last fall, will boost its enrollment from 60 to 100 students, founder and business manager Wendie Leweck said.

The arts-oriented school hosted its first theater performance Friday night and its latest fundraiser brought in $7,000, Leweck said. But charter schools such as hers still face funding challenges, she said.   

The Birches Academy is looking to expand its Salem facility to accommodate a kindergarten program that would open next fall. Enrollment at the school, serving students through eighth grade, would rise from 196 to 220 students, Angelico-Hart said.

Increased funding would be a welcome gift, Angelico-Hart said.

"You could start doing things you never even thought of," she said.

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