Many people were kind enough to weigh-in with feedback on the piece on Question Two that I ran last week and I thought I should follow up with some additional information.
Question Two would raise the cap on charter schools statewide. I oppose Question Two because it goes too far. When charter schools draw students from within a community, the community has to pay tuition to the charter school. This can place a strain on school budgets.
To protect local schools from excessively rapid and destabilizing funding loss, current state law creates both a statewide cap on the number of charter schools and community specific caps on total charter enrollment. Question Two would abrogate both of these major limits and also several other limits that protect local school districts. For more details, see the notebox that I added to last week’s piece and this explainer from DESE.
ln my piece last week, I expressed two concerns about this could work out. The first concern was that in communities where schools are working relatively well, charters could deplete hard-won school resources. In many relatively affluent communities, the state provides little aid and local parents fight hard for the school budget, often passing overrides and raising money privately. Charters could draw these funds away, decrease accountability of the schools to local taxpayers and undermine local will to fund schools.
This concern is not theoretical. There are 14 charters in suburban locations and 30 that draw students regionally. The risk of suburban growth exists even without Question Two. The statewide cap on the total number of Commonwealth charter schools (72) has not been reached — 16 charters remain available. Further, most suburban communities are nowhere near the 9% cap on student enrollment — for example, 291 more Belmont students would have to enroll in charter schools for Belmont to reach 9%. For Watertown, the number is 217.
Question Two does nothing to diminish this risk and, in fact, increases it in several ways: First by creating a permanent expansion mechanism for charter schools (12 new charters per year statewide), it increases the chances that charter operators will seek to provide educational products targeted at higher performing districts. Second it eliminates, as to the 12 new charters annually, the prohibition on non-regional charters in communities with populations under 30,000. Third, it eliminates, as to the 12 new charters annually, the limitation that no more than one charter per year shall be created in high performing communities.
My other major concern about Question Two is how it would affect the Boston Schools. The Boston Schools are struggling with the challenges of school closures already. Question Two would leave Boston with no meaningful protections on the growth of charter enrollment because the 12 new charters annually are not subject to any community level limits — they could end up disproportionately in Boston, further destabilizing a school system under strain.
My concern about destabilizing the Boston school budget originates from Boston parents. I’m privileged to represent about 1/6th of Boston and that fraction constitutes 60% of my legislative district. I have listened very carefully to what Boston parents have to say about charters, making sure that I was hearing their opinions in an unfiltered way. I have reached the conclusion that a great many of them have heartfelt and legitimate concerns about how charter expansion could affect the resources available to the public schools that their children attend. There are many local district schools in Boston that parents passionately support.
Powerful forces have lined up on opposite sides of Question Two. I respect both the private sector education innovators and the teachers unions. I support some charter expansion, but I do believe that Question Two goes too far.