No on Question Two

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.

See this follow-on piece.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

76 replies on “No on Question Two”

  1. I understand your reasoning, Will, but because of the real problems with the Boston schools, I can’t support your position. I’ve been around since bussing, and watched the school system implode. While it seems to be improving now, progress is glacial. I’m not willing to see yet another generation suffer from poor teaching and intrenched methods if a ballot question can help.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am conflicted over this question because my granddaughter is teaching in a charter elementary school in East Boston. School began 2 weeks earlier and the students get out later. I theoretically believe in unions but would like to see public school teachers agree to a longer day. I however think I will vote no because of the automatic increase in charters that Question 2 states.A proposal could come later after more debate.

  2. Children are not commodities and should not be treated as such. We simply need to better fund our schools with taxes and qualified teachers. That seems to me the only solution.

  3. Will,
    As usual, you are ahead of the game, so to speak. I had just sat down to write you a note about the upcoming election and the question on charter schools.

    Thanks
    Dan Healey

  4. My concern is the impact on property taxes. I am having difficulty deciding until I get the straight information on short term and long term impacts. Most school committees have the turnover of a school bus at dismissal time and kick the can down the road so I cannot believe them.

  5. It is my understanding that the pubic entity charter schools do not offer nearly the same level of transparency with regard to their budgets compared to public schools. A public entity (or the controlling company) by law has to provide an annual report. A lot can happen in a year with very little view into the business.

  6. Initatives can be fixed as easily — you tell me what that means — as any other form of legislation. If the pace of charter school expansion turns out to impose unreasonable costs I hope I can count on the legislature to change the rate to a number that reflects our enlarged experience. On the other hand if you think this is unlikely, if you think the legislature is unlikely to entertain remedial measures for some reason, let me know. But I basically see initiatives as ways of communicating with the entire legislature as opposed to one at a time, and since I think this is a moment when I would like to do that I plan to vote yes.

    1. I wouldn’t assume that the legislature will fix a bad initiative. It can happen — it did happen on the 2000 tax cut. But legislators really don’t like to override “the will of the people”. Only vote for this if you think it really is better than the status quo.

  7. Senator Brownsberger,

    I agree with your position and will vote No on question 2. If we have problem with our schools, lets fix the problem. We should create solutions within the public school system. Expanding charter schools can lead us to issues down the road and ultimately to exactly where we are now:; trying to solve a problem with our children’s education.
    Thank you!

  8. Andrew and I are supporting no on question 2. Andrew, who went through Boston Public schools, is very opposed to question 2 and is actually volunteering his time on the issue. Your analysis was very interesting and I agree wholeheartedly. I really think that expanded charter schools will hurt public schools. I no longer have a student in the school system but I definitely think the focus should be improving the public schools in all neighborhoods.

  9. Thank you for your analysis. It supports exactly my perceptions on the Charter School expansion. My daughter worked in an Arizona charter school, the feeling I got from what she was telling me was big corporations running schools is not in the best interest of pupils and families. It was all about the bottom line.

  10. Thanks, as usual, Will, for your insight. Public school education has been the infrastructure upon which this democracy has been built. I sincerely believe that an expansion of charter schools will build one system up while we let another die. We know what the problems in our public schools are and we need to attack them head-on instead of creating an alternate system. I am sympathetic to one of the comments that the current student generation has to suffer while we figure out what to do. My children now have children in the public schools and every generation has had to suffer through the changes that everyone thought were essential at the time. Public education will continue to be a work in progress. I do not believe that charter schools are the answer.

  11. Excellent reasoning. I agree with you totally, Will. Keep up the good work! You’re an excellent senator and you do us all proud.

  12. Although the charter school system appears to give better results on the MCAS,it does so at the sacrifice of imaginative curricula and elimination students who do not do well on tests. This depletes the stock of students who do well in test situations thus lowering the average scores of public school attendees. This will tend to cause an even greater disparity in test scores, especially in urban areas. The rapid expansion of charter schools has effectively drained off the better students from public schools and has not proven to enhance the educational system overall.

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