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. There are so many problems with the education system in the US it’s hard to know where to begin as we continue to lose ground to many other industrialized countries.
    Let me begin by saying that I feel the vast majority of teachers are excellent educators. They give an enormous amount of their personal time and money to their profession and the children. Society has placed an ever growing responsibility on teachers to educate, discipline and help raise students. This is not recognized as often as it should be. Education professionals are woefully underpaid for their critical role in a child’s development.
    I have witnessed many times, over the years a lack of support from management. Educators often know the children better than their parents do. Far too many educational managers, when an issue arises between a parent and a teacher, have the attitude of, go along to get along, and do not adequately support the teachers. This has a very detrimental impact on the morale of their educators and sends a very confusing message. I have also spoken with principals that have told me that it can take 2-3 years to remove a poorly performing teacher that is equally as bad.
    I believe that competition is healthy and the book written by Bill Gates offers a positive roadmap on how our educational system needs to be revamped to keep pace with the rest of the world. Any profession that allows a job for life, once a person has tenure is heading down a slippery slope. It encourages mediocrity, stagnation and bad behavior. Many young enthusiastic teachers quickly find that innovative ideas are not always warmly embraced, because it changes the status quo. When layoff notices come out, it’s based on longevity vs. the best candidate for the job, which is detrimental to the children and sends the wrong message to aspiring teachers.
    Public schools may think they are doing a child a favor, by not requiring homework or acknowledging/rewarding a child that works hard and gets an A for their efforts, but they aren’t. If someone works hard and receives an A, what is wrong with that? Some teachers have told me that acknowledging that someone excels at something makes other students feel bad. That may be so, but maybe they will work harder, pay more attention, ask for assistance or maybe even ask their parents for help. When these children get to higher grades they aren’t prepared. Bill Gates once said during a presentation, Life is unfair, get used to it and he’s right. We are supposed to be preparing a child to become an adult one day, not make them oblivious to what lies ahead and the work they must embrace, if they want to lead healthy productive lives.
    Adult’s need to have goals and guidance in their professional careers to make them feel the pleasure of success/attainment, students aren’t any different.
    I do feel that if state mandates are imposed on towns/schools i.e. special educational requirements or behavioral intersession, etc., it is incumbent on the state to share more of the burden to help offset the extraordinarily high costs of these programs to all the cities and towns. We made the rules now you figure out how to implement and pay for it is not being very responsible.
    Competition between public/charter schools is healthy and will work! A revamping of the educational system will reduce crime, incarceration and unemployment.
    I will be voting Yes on Question #2.
    Thank You

  2. State House leader Delio will be on TV today Sunday on WCVB Ch 5 at about 11:30 explaining his support for a YES vote on Charter Schools.

  3. I will be voting Yes for question 2 based on a very personal experience with our public school system.

    I found out starting from kinder garden, my daughter would only have 15 minutes for lunch. That includes the time to get into the cafeteria, waiting in line, sit down and eat. As a result of that, she rarely have enough time to get a proper meal and often come home hungry.

    I repetitively asked for a change to school master and super-intendant, even at Belmont Town meetings. But none can change the contract that the teachers union negotiated with the school department that stipulates that they must leave the school at a given time ( could be as early as 3:30PM, please help to verify ) As a result of that, all activities have to be squeezed together, including the allocation of 15 minutes for a 6-year-old to eat lunch.

    I am deeply concerned about the way our public school is running. And would support Charter school as a valid alternative and competitor.

    (I am very grateful to teachers and staffs at Belmont public schools. I think they are all wonderful. The teachers union is my main concern. Because their interest do not align with the best educational opportunity for our children.)

  4. I remain dismayed at your No vote on Question 2. I have always thought of you as thoughtful and principled. How you can deny something to these children in need that you have provided to your own kids, is beyond believe. Can you name one thing that the “system” has to offer that will ensure these kids get the same education as is received in Belmont? You can’t and have become part of the problem not the solution, which is sad and a huge disappointment.

    1. Consider the possibility, Chris, that you were just wrong on this.

      That yes, some charter schools have done well, but that there are also some very good public schools that were truly threatened by the overly broad language of this proposition.

      Ponder the fact that this proposition went down 60-40 in Boston itself, the very community proponents most wanted to change. That happened despite the fact that proponents of this proposition outspent opponents substantially and had the support of the highest and most popular elected official in the state — do not dismiss the wisdom of the voters by arguing that the campaign was lop-sided.

      There are a lot of parents that felt this went to too far and I share and represent their views.

      1. You are correct and as written the ballot question was imperfect and I believe never should have happened if the legislature had fulfilled its obligation to these kids.
        So what do you plan to do now? the MTA says they just need more money “for the children”, is that all it will take and where will you find it?
        Have you heard of one earnest solution to this problem since Tuesday? i’d love to hear it.

        1. This is one of the central debates of our time and there are no new ideas or easy solutions.

          Not to deny responsibility, but it will take some time for next steps to emerge.

          I don’t think that there is low-hanging fruit that the legislature is ignoring.

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