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BPS parents discuss charters

NAACP forum explores effects of charters on district school funding

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
BPS parents discuss charters
Parent activist Heshan Berents-Weeramuni makes a point during an NAACP forum on charter schools. Looking on are Mel King, Harneen Chernow and Odette Williamson.

With a lawsuit, a ballot initiative and legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker all aimed at lifting the state’s cap on charter schools, district school supporters are sounding a note of caution, warning that new charter seats will siphon public education dollars away from Boston’s schools.

Simmons College Professor Theresa Perry speaks to a gathering at the NAACP’s forum on charter schools Monday.

At a meeting sponsored by the NAACP Boston branch Monday, speakers said expanding the number of charter schools seats available in Massachusetts without additional funding from the state will increase inequality and cut deeply into the Boston school department’s resources.

Education activists, parents and a handful of students crowded into the basement of the 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury for the NAACP meeting and listened to a panel discussion on charters. Representatives of the pro-charter school groups that are pushing for lifting the cap on new charters were not represented on the panel.

City councilors Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey and state Sen. Pat Jehlen attended.

Boston Branch NAACP President Michael Curry said his organization put together the discussion to better inform community residents of the issues involved in raising the state-imposed cap on charter school expansion.

“There’s a concern that we’re not investing in the traditional school system, yet we’re looking at other models,” he said. “No one here is anti-charter. At least I’m not. But what I am is in favor of traditional schools.”

Curry said he has been approached numerous times by charter school advocates who are mounting a campaign to lift the cap on charters.

“There is so much dialogue and action around lifting the cap,” Curry said. “People in the community don’t have a good understanding of what charter schools are. But the community is the focus of this campaign.”

Citywide Parents Council member Heshan Berents Weeramuni gave a slide presentation with charts and graphics showing how education funding in Boston has failed to keep pace with increasing costs of salaries, pensions and health care costs of employees, costs of transportation and energy and other factors that have repeatedly led to school closures and the loss of programs like arts and music.

Charters receive funding from the Chapter 70 aid the state sends to local school districts. While the state is required to compensate the local districts for the lost aid — 50 percent for the first year and 25 percent for the next three — those re-imbursements have never been fully funded.

Local aid to Boston schools has shrunk from 33 percent of the district’s budget in the 1990s to just 9 percent last year. For each student who leaves the district for a charter school, Boston loses $14,000 in state Chapter 70 funding. If a school loses just six students, Berents Weeramuni noted, it will lose $84,000 — enough to fund a teacher or specialist, an arts or music program.

The $125 million in Boston’s Chapter 70 funding charter schools get accounts for roughly $1 million in lost funding for each of Boston’s schools, Berents Weeramuni said.

Charter schools, which were introduced to Massachusetts in 1993, function independently of the school districts in which they operate. Each is governed by its own board of overseers and operates under guidelines set by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In the more than 20 years of charter schools in Massachusetts, DESE has revoked the licenses of four charter schools, and opted not to renew the licenses of two.

“There was a concept that charter schools had to be better than district schools,” said Harneen Chernow, who was appointed by former Gov. Mitt Romney to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They had to have better outcomes than the sending districts.”

Selective service

By the Numbers

126 District Schools in Boston

24 Commonwealth charter schools

57,000 Students in BPS district

8,500 Students in Boston charters

$200 million: Estimated Chapter 70 state funding allocated to Boston for 2016

49 percent: Amount of Chapter 70 state funding that goes to charters

51 percent: Amount of Chapter 70 state funding that goes to district schools

While nationally, charter schools have not proven to have better outcomes than district schools, studies in Massachusetts have shown charters here to outperform their district competitors. But panelists at the NAACP meeting said that charters are able to outperform district schools by pushing out students who are more difficult and costly to educate. While nearly a third of Boston students are considered limited English language proficient and 19 percent are special needs students, charter schools here serve a much lower percentage of those groups. In 2010, just one percent of the students in Boston’s charters were English language learners.

Chernow noted that charter schools have abnormally high attrition rates, suggesting that underperforming students, English Language learners and special needs students are being pushed out. At the Edward Brooke Charter School, just 50 percent of the students who started in the 5th grade completed the 8th grade. Codman Academy and City on a Hill charter schools posted similar attrition rates.

Chernow suggested that the attrition of underperforming students is part of charter schools’ operating procedures, noting that many schools planned larger class sizes in earlier grades and smaller class sizes in later grades.

“We were told at different times that because the charter schools have high standards, many kids weren’t expected to succeed,” she said. “If a school district came to DESE and said it’s the families who are choosing to leave, versus a system failure, I think we’d say there’s a problem.”

Odette Williamson, a parent whose daughter attended a charter school before moving to Boston Latin School and whose son attends the Joseph Lee Elementary School in Dorchester, said many charter schools subscribe to a broken windows theory of school discipline, serving up suspensions for minor violations like dress code infractions or talking in a hallway between classes.

“Children at charter schools are routinely taken out of classrooms,” she said.

Her daughter once was made to call her at work because she was cited for talking during lunchtime. Parents of charter school students often are required to pick their children up from school for such infractions.

“Students who are routinely removed from the classroom will fall behind,” she said.

Many students are then held back and required to repeat a grade. As a result, most parents then pull their students out of charters and return them to district schools, Williamson said.

“It’s as if the child has failed the school, not as if the school has failed the child,” she commented.

The Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, which boasts one of the highest MCAS performance rates in the state, also has the highest out-of-school suspension rates at 60 percent. While Boston schools have a relatively low out-of-school suspension rate — 6 percent — charters in Boston have a rate of 17 percent, noted Matt Cregor, a staff attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

At Roxbury Prep, 92 percent of the suspensions were for non-violent, non-criminal offenses, according to Cregor.