Charter Schools and Education Funding

As a legislator, I was struck by the brass of a recent campaign commercial.

As a citizen, I am voting against Question 2, which would lift the cap on charter schools, because I am concerned about its impact on already-strained local school budgets. When students leave local schools to go to charter schools, the local schools have to pay tuition to the charters. Current law places reasonable limits on charter expansion. Question 2 bypasses those limits. If we bypass the limits on charter expansion, in some communities there will simply be too many schools and resources will be spread too thin among them.

No one should imagine that, as a recent yes-on-2 commercial suggests, a yes vote would result in increased funding for all schools.

The grain of truth in the commercial is that, in theory, when a student leaves a local school and the school has to pay charter tuition, the state reimburses the first year costs in full and at the 25% level for the next few years.

The bigger picture is that charter reimbursement aid competes directly with general education aid through the Chapter 70 formula. To the extent that charters expand, and more education aid flows out through the charter reimbursement formula, there will be less to give out through the general education aid formula.

Further, charter reimbursement is always a question mark in the budget process. The state generally does not make it in full. And whether the reimbursement is sufficient to prevent increased strain depends very much on the actual cost structure of the local school district — how many classrooms it has, how students are distributed across them, whether it is feasible to make savings when students depart.

While local education aid is a passionate top priority for me, as it is for most legislators, it does not seem likely to me that the state will be able to expand the education aid pie so as bail out local school districts that experience disproportionate losses from a Yes vote on Question 2.

The state budget continues to be very tight. We are seven years into our current recovery, but the state has failed to fully rebuild its reserve funds. When I sit through budget hearings at the state level, I am struck again and again that we are not providing the services that constituents expect and demand.  Many agencies have been hollowed out by years of cost-cutting forced by the combination of limited revenue growth and rising health care costs.

The MassHealth program covers 1.9 million people, 27% (read that again) of the state’s population. Rising enrollment has driven MassHealth costs up to $15.4 billion, roughly 35% of the state’s total spending. We could not have a Governor better suited by background and inclination to reform and control the costs of the health care system. But good people have been struggling valiantly to control health care cost growth for decades and it remains very much to be seen whether this administration will achieve better results.

The Senate did manage to pass a compromise charter bill this year, which did not make it through the House. In that bill, we conditioned charter expansion on expansion in education aid, implicitly conditioning charter expansion on passage of the 2018 ballot question that would raise the income tax on millionaires. That approach is more realistic.

A Yes vote on Question 2 would create new schools without creating additional resources to pay for them.

Thanks so much to all who have commented!

October 30

There is some deep discussion going on in the comments below, which I have reviewed. I am especially grateful to Stephen Ronan, Jonathan Kamens, Patty Nolan and Dan Gleason for bringing a lot of information and analysis to the table.

What I come back to is this basic reality: Creating charter schools is creating schools — we are increasing the absolute number of institutions serving children.

By definition that means either closing existing schools or spreading whatever resources are available more thinly across buildings. Anyone with experience in public budgeting knows that, for better or worse, closing anything that is used by people who can advocate for themselves is extremely difficult. Therefore expanding the number of schools creates real risks of increasing the financial stress on existing schools.

This should only be done with great caution and with sensitivity to the needs of particular communities. The problem with Question 2 is that it abrogates community level protections on pacing. Reasonable people can differ on how the state will handle that increased power, but I feel that Question Two creates unnecessary risks of harm.

I am saddened to think is that whatever the outcome is, it will have been decided by a thin vote and will not have had the benefit of a real consensus development process as we attempt (with mixed results) in the legislative process.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

84 replies on “Charter Schools and Education Funding”

    1. You mean like Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics? A quarter of Boston public school students in 7th and 8th grade attend one of the exam schools, and they do very well.

      Boston has an uneven school system. It is not uniformly awful.

  1. I appreciate your communications. I heard the advertisements and thought they might be a distortion but didn’t nderstand the implications. Without your information I might have voted against what I passionately believe in, namely a full educational experience for every child, not just the few.

    1. If you are relying on a one side partisian opinion as fact then good lord not much can be done. Why not research amd educate yourself.

  2. I am always impressed by your thoughtfulness on the different issues. I am courious, are charter schools a means towards segreation?

    1. There’s an interesting debate developing that there certainly could be segregation for special ed students and their families. Read this article, especially the topic, “How does the tuition formula treat special education students?”

      http://www.massbudget.org/report_window.php?loc=Charter-School-Funding,-Explained.html

      Note how Chapter 70 and the tuition formula assume charters educate the same number of sped kids. They don’t. Also note that not tracked and reported is the severity of sped students in districts versus charters. The fact is the more difficult cases like autism-specific classrooms are only in districts. Charters don’t have the economies of scale to staff these.

      12 new charters a year anywhere in the state will create district schools that deal largely with difficult special education populations that charters cannot address, including ALL out of district placements. Even if a sped student starts at a charter and is later determined to require an outplacement, that student is first transferred back to the sending/home district, which then places the student in the proper facility/program and assumes 100% of the cost.

  3. Thank you for this article. I knew that commercial had to be misleading but I wasn’t sure how they were “bending” the facts to do so.

  4. Reading that your are struck by the brass of a campaign commercial sounds like Captain Renault being shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on …The real brass is suburban voters deny inner city children a chance at a quality education.
    As I have written on these pages, Question 2 is hardly perfect but a No vote continues a system that condemns inner city youth to schools that have done harm to individual, families and communities. Schools that have not changed and will not until competition forces change. A Yes vote forces change and it is change that is needed.

  5. The question should be, will charter schools give students a better education. It should not be about money.

    1. The question is whether the charter school mechanism in question 2 will improve education _overall_, for _all_ students.

      It may improve education for the few students who are able to attend charter schools. However, at the same time it will damage education for the much larger number of students left behind in the traditional public schools. Overall, the quality of education will go down, not up, because of the disparate impact on the traditional schools and the much larger number of students in them.

      We need to find a solution which doesn’t benefit a small number of students at the expense of many more.

    2. Correct. Hearing people are distressed over these commercials as lies.. i have to sit and wonder dont they know we feel the same about the lies from the no side. Its about the kids fix the problemtic wasteful spending

        1. I am not sure what Jim was referring to, but here are a couple of examples of inaccurate representations of reality from a Save Our Schools4-page flyer

          * “According to a 2015 report by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, students who graduated from the BPS had a greater chance of success in college, with 50 percent of BPS high school graduates — but only 42 percent of Boston charter high school graduates — obtaining a college degree within six

          * “A study of charter high schools in Boston showed that only 40 percent of those enrolled as freshmen made it to graduation, compared to 80 percent of those enrolled in the Boston Public Schools.”

          Please see, for example, my September 12, 2016 8:17 PM comment here for why those statements are incorrect.

          When I started encountering widespread errors along those lines a year ago, I thought they’d be quick and easy to get fixed. But as exemplified here in respect to Christopher Martell’s blog post or here in respect to Mark Weber’s criticism of Q2, these inaccuracies continue widespread and are hard to dislodge.

          My sense is that respected legislators like Senator Brownsberger and Education Chair Sonia Chang-Diaz should be encouraged to more aggressively seek to further help both sides of this controversy come to a common understanding of the facts. The current posting by Senator Brownsberger is a helpful move along such lines.

    3. The anonymous “Tony G” thinks that the only question is, “Which is best, district schools or charter schools?”

      He’s wrong. That’s not the only question.

      3 questions must be answered, in this order.

      1. Do MA taxpayers want good education for all, or just for some?

      2. If MA taxpayers want good education for all, then how much are we willing to spend to get it?

      3. Using whatever we’re willing to spend, what’s the most efficient, economical way to get the best results?

      No matter what the answers to these 3 questions, having 2 separate public school systems (districts vs. charters) is madness, especially when everyone agrees that at least 1 of these 2 systems is unfair, and/or ineffective, and/or wasteful.

  6. “To the extent that charters expand, and more education aid flows out through the charter reimbursement formula, there will be less to give out through the general education aid formula.”

    I’m curious to understand that better. Is it the case that there is an automatic dollar for dollar reduction in the “general education aid” for each dollar spent in charter reimbursement aid? Or is it just, in practice, in your experience, likely to happen given the limited available tax revenues?

    In considering the financial impacts on education of passage of Question 2, I’d think it makes sense to include factors such as:

    * Charter schools by demonstrating impressive success have been drawing more philanthropic support to education via charitable donations.

    * At many charter schools, English Language Learners (ELL) substantially more rapidly learn English than their counterparts who tried unsuccessfully to get into the same schools via their lotteries, and for that
    and other reasons the charter schools are declassified as ELL much more quickly at charter schools… As a result, we as taxpayers pay less for their tuition. And that would free up Chapter 70 money for general education aid?

    * When, for example, charter schools in Boston demonstrate results
    equating to more than twelve months of additional learning per year in reading and thirteen months greater progress in math
    that makes taxpayers more enthusiastic that they are getting great value for their money.

    * Relatedly, passage of Question 2, raising the charter school cap, would seem to increase odds of passage of the millionaire’s tax, yes? Or do you perhaps believe that odds are already high enough that that doesn’t matter?

      1. True, but they have stood up formidably well to extremely intensive post-publication scrutiny by their would-be critics.

    1. Oops… Should have written “for that and other reasons the students are declassified as ELL much more quickly at those charter schools”

  7. Good clarification Will. Your comments on the budget meetings prompts me to ask what have you done to stop some govt funded activities to make room in the budget for higher priority items like education? A good leader makes the tough decisions in order to fund the most urgent needs. I think your constituents might like to know what efforts you have made to stop spending in order to create capacity in the budget for the most important needs.

  8. Will, your comments on Question 2 raise the broader question of the wisdom of passing laws by popular referendum instead of a legislative process. A ballot question generally results from efforts by the interests on only one side of an issue. The general electorate is unlikely to know enough to make good policy decisions in many areas and the dangers of unintended consequences can be large. The brief arguments pro and con in the voter booklet, and TV advertisements, are not enough to understand what is really on the table.

    It seems much more sound to rely instead on legislators who can receive broad public input, conduct hearings, hear witnesses, etc. and also take enough time to study a question. Otherwise we run the risk of “Brexit” style regrets when the voters have not been able to consider an important question thoroughly or dispassionately enough. I am even thinking of voting no on all ballot questions in the future because they seem intended to evade legislative debate.

    1. Absolutely agreed, the default vote for any popular referendum should be “no”. This was certainly the lesson we learned in California — one year we had 3 competing initiatives to “reform” auto insurance, plus 2 competing initiatives changing rules for logging (known as “Big Green” and “Big Brown”). Sheer confusion gives bad laws a chance to pass.

  9. Will,

    Thank you for your continued clear thinking on this issue and so many others.

    I have really been distressed by the lies coming out of the yes-on-2 camp. The claim that the law would cause increased public education funding is just one of the many lies they are telling.

    The most recent yes-on-2 ad I heard said that question 2 should be passed because the current charter school law is “outdated.” That really, really rubbed on me the wrong way.

    Also, their over-the-top pulling on people’s heartstrings is really disturbing.

    I hope people see through the manipulation, but I’m not confident.

    I share Roy Epstein’s concerns about the referendum process. Frankly, a number of referendums that have passed in recent years have been stupid and bad for the commonwealth. There’s clearly a problem; whether there is a solution is far less clear.

  10. Maybe you should overhaul how our taxes are spent. I have several friends who are teachers and i always thought well they are u derpaid. Tuens out they make 6 figures for a 9 month job and pension. So i would suggest thay is fixed before we cry how much money would be lost. Our schools are already over crowded.. they want to increase taxes 3% to pay for new schools.. so whats the difference. The goal is to better educate not wasteful spending or keeping the money local in public schools where they may not educate everyone fairly. Beside it would be nice to see a public figure on the break even cost of qty of students. Since we are already over crowded what’s wrong with a child going to another school

    1. “6 figures” isn’t what’s generally reported — and what was reported this week (by the Globe, which has been a strong supporter of charters) is that a lot of teachers put in much more than 40 hours a week. Given this and the fact that the effective school year is closer to 10 months than 9 means that a lot of teachers are working more than 40 hours a week averaged over the entire year.

      1. Not to criticize teachers in any way, but your math is flawed. You say teachers work 10 months a year and work more than 40 hours per week. OK so far, but they have the entire summer off, which is in excess of 9 weeks. And during the 10 months they work, they have entire weeks off between Christmas & New Years, another in February and another in April. This is in addition to holidays such as Thanksgiving, MKL day, Columbus Day, and more. The average person working in the public sector works in excess of 48 weeks per year and many regularly put in in excess of 40 hours per week. One only has to know that the school year is 180 days (out of 365) and teachers put in a few extra days in addition to that. There really isn’t a comparison of hours worked by teachers vs. an engineer, nurse, accountant, etc. A good friend of mine who is a wonderful teacher once quipped that being a teacher was like getting full time salary for a 9 month job. Even the best teachers work, on average, about 3 hours for every 4 other professions work.

  11. Why do charter schools have a better record of improved education? It is all about education , right? I don’t trust the teachers union. What are they trying to protect? JP

    1. I’m a school committee member in a district. We have a very good charter next door. On last spring’s MCAS they were 3% higher in ELA proficiency, but we were 6% higher in math and 19% higher in science. That’s only one measurement, but the Yes on 2 folks like to say charters produce better standardized test scores. In aggregate it’s about even. In some urban areas they may produce slightly better. But they also educate less special ed and English language learner students.

      We are not a rich suburb by any means and are not on anyone’s short list of best school district’s in MA (although that is changing). And the charter next door is considered one of the better ones in the state. Our towns (we are a two town region) send about 20% of their students. So I know many of the families and the kids. They do not go to different or better colleges.

      We have a good and trusting relationship with our union. They are reasonable. They have worked with us as we put together a new school region, merged separate staffs/unions, merged middle schools, and built a new high school. Lots of disruption, yet they were a solid partner.

      So based on my personal experience over 9 years on a school committee, your generalized statements are false. They may be true in some places, but they are certainly false in others, including our district.

    2. You’re right – the fact is for low-income students of color, the evidence is clear: charters work better. MIT, Harvard, Stanford all have done independent studies and found large positive affects for those students. Interesting, the studies don’t find overwhelming evidence for non-urban charters in Mass.

      Look up the studies. And two of them corrected for selection bias. Meaning they looked at all students who applied to a charter and then compared the outcomes of those who got in and those who didn’t.

      How is it than in this state with our proud record of supporting crticial thinking and analysis that studies by Harvard, MIT AND Stanford are dismissed? I am stunned that many people opposing the expansion wave their hands and ignore the statistically significant positive results – in test scores, in graduation rates, in college attendance and persistence. In Massachusetts and especially Boston charter schools serve low-income students of color better than traditional public schools.

  12. Please correct me if I’m wrong…

    The proposed amendment regarding charter schools states (in my mind, clearly) that it will not affect the original law on charter schools and any subsequent amendments. That means that a school’s per/student allocation will not change.

    However, if a school loses some students to a charter school and thereby receives less total funds on the per-student basis, they will have less money for admin costs that don’t change. THEN I see a financial impact on non-charter schools — but not a big one. No one school in the state will lose many students to a charter school.

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