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.
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.
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