On school issues, I listen very closely to the feelings of parents. I get mixed signals from parents about charter schools, but I do oppose Question Two, which would lift the cap on charter schools, because it goes too far.
Charter schools get their “charter” from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and are authorized to draw students from local public schools. They are public entities run by a board of trustees, but they may contract with for-profit organizations for services. If DESE is not satisfied with the performance of a charter school, DESE can revoke its charter. In that sense, charter schools are highly accountable for results.
While a student from a local school district attends a charter school, the local school district must pay tuition to the charter school. The tuition is set roughly equal to the sending district’s average per pupil expenditure. In theory, however, in the first year, the state covers the tuition and also pays a portion of the tuition in several following years to ease the school district’s transition to a lower student headcount. The state typically does not fully meet this obligation — it is not bound to do so at a 100% level — but usually comes fairly close.
Charter schools are typically non-unionized, although their employees can unionize just like other public employees. Their teachers, while required under federal law to be “highly qualified” are not required to be licensed by the state, and do not receive the same tenure protections that public school teachers receive. Their students are, however, required to pass the same tests that local district students must pass in order to graduate.
There are many conflicting assertions about the educational effectiveness of charter schools. My view, after listening to a lot of argument and reading some of the research, is this: at least in Massachusetts, on average, charter schools have achieved better results in high poverty urban districts, but have not achieved better results in suburban districts.
In many high poverty districts, charter schools offer choices for parents and students who don’t have the financial ability to choose suburban schools. I hear parents in those districts asking for options and I feel we should respect their wishes and authorize charter expansion. Typically, in those high-poverty districts, the state is providing most of the funds for local schools — the whole goal of the state aid formula is to bring up spending in high-poverty districts. When the state is providing most of the funding, it assures stronger accountability for the state to charter the schools.
In places like Belmont and Watertown, by contrast, many parents have chosen their homes with the school district very much in mind. They are likely to live close to their children’s school, to volunteer in the school and to be active in political efforts to assure adequate resources for the school. They may even donate money to enrich school programs through local education foundations. These relatively affluent districts receive little state aid, so to the extent a charter school draws resources from them, local taxpayers who may have voted for overrides to fund their local schools and who are motivated to hold them accountable, will instead be funding schools out of their control, an arrangement that will dilute accountability and weaken the local will to support schools.
Question Two would leave these communities open to the entry of charter schools which is one principal reason I cannot support it. The other reason I oppose Question Two is the way that it would make Boston the likely target of unreasonably rapid charter expansion.
Boston is relatively capable financially and also has relatively high per pupil spending. It also has some high poverty areas. That makes it very attractive to charter operators — Boston charters have relatively high budgets and can focus on high-need kids, which, to their credit, is typically their motivation. The long-term problem that Boston faces is school-system overcapacity. Its resources are spread too thin across too many buildings already and the ongoing transition to lower enrollments means painful decisions to close schools. Question Two places no community-level limit on the expansion of charter schools. It would make possible a too-rapid expansion that would further destabilize the Boston schools.
The legislature has tried and failed to reach a viable compromise on charters. Unfortunately, the proposition that advocates have framed for the voters on November 8 does not provide a good solution either. It’s a deep issue and I welcome discussion here.
Details on the charter cap
Currently, the charter school law, Chapter 71, Section 89 imposes two main caps on the number of charter schools — these appear in subsection (i) of the law:
- A statewide cap on the total number of Commonwealth charter schools — 72
- A community level cap on the total tuition due to enrollment from charter schools — 9% of net school spending
There are several additional rules:
- No charter schools added within communities under 30,000 population unless they are regional.
- Not more than one additional charter school per year shall be approved in communities in the top 10%.
- In the lowest 10% of districts, the tuition cap goes up from 9% to 18%.
Question two, the charter school proposal (which appears in full text in the voter guide published by the Secretary of State), basically adds a catch-all override to all of these limits, allowing the creation 12 additional charter schools per year. The 12 new charters authorized each year cannot add charter enrollment greater than 1% of the statewide enrollment in all public schools. The law does state that if there are more than 12 qualified applicants priority shall be given to applicants serving communities in the bottom 25% of test scores.
As the proponents have chosen to write it, the proposition would affect smaller communities not in the lowest 10% of performance in two ways — it would eliminate the protection existing in current law against new non-regional charters in communities under 30,000 and the limit on charters in the top 10%; by lifting the statewide cap on charter schools it would increase the probability that a charter could be approved that affected them (either within their boundaries or as a regional).
For larger communities with lower performance numbers, it would create the risk that new charters would be approved within their boundaries without any limit on the total amount of tuition drawn away from local schools.