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Charter cap: lift or keep?

Activists clash over value, argue waitlist lengths, drop-out rates and special need services

Jule Pattison-Gordon

As charter school operators push to expand, a trio of high-powered attorneys sue to lift the state cap on charters and charter supporters are advancing a proposed 2016 ballot initiative to bring the question to voters, activists on both sides are engaged in a war of words where the length of waitlists, percentages of special needs students and drop-out rates are fiercely contested.

This week, the Banner is examining key areas of contention between charter supporters and district school advocates.

Weighing waitlists

As justification for raising the cap, charter proponents, including Governor Charlie Baker last week, repeatedly cite a figure of 37,000, the number they say, of students waiting for admissions. Opponents say the charters’ waitlist management policies resulted in inflated numbers.

Until recently, a single student who applied to multiple charters was counted on each one’s waitlist, resulting in many redundant entries in the overall count. The Department of Education ruled that charters must remove duplicate names, and this year’s numbers reflect that, said Dominic Slowey, media contact for Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

However, waitlists still contain names of students who may no longer seek entrance into the charters. It was policy to keep students on lists for as long as they were of eligible age to enter a grade at the school. This means that a child put on the waitlist for a K-8’ s kindergarten class then remains on the list for 9 years, without active indication by the student or their family that they continue to be interested.

The DOE website cautions that “the number of students found on each charter school’s waitlist may not accurately represent the number of students actively waiting for enrollment to that school,” as at a given point in time, the student may have already found placement at another school that suits their needs or they may not wish to leave their current school mid-year. Charters keep students on their waitlists for the course of the school year, as if seats open during the year, schools may offer them to those students.

As MA charters comply with a recent state DOE rule that requires charters schools to create a brand-new waitlist each year, duplicate and hold-over names from previous years will be eliminated, giving greater accuracy to the waitlist figures.

Slowey said he was not sure how many had implemented this change so far, but expected most had.

“It could take a year or two to implement,” he said. “[Waitlists tallying] 13,000 in Boston and 37,000 statewide have already been scrubbed for duplicates and in most cases have eliminated anybody who’s been on the list for more than a year.”

The DOE rule allows charters to keep waitlists created before March 31, 2014 until they are exhausted, thus there will be a delay before the full effects are reflected.

Discipline drive-out

Charters are known for stricter discipline, prompting some educational activists to charge that they use such measures to force students out.

Massachusetts charters served three percent of students in SY 2012-2013, yet accounted for six percent of all disciplinary removals, according to a report issued by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

Comparisons in Boston were especially striking: in SY 2012-2013, while Boston Public Schools had an average discipline rate of 6.6 percent, Boston charters’ rate was 17.3 percent, according to the report.

Another troubling finding: disparities appeared regarding who received discipline, with minorities and students with disabilities disproportionately suspended. In Massachusetts, black students are 3.7 times as likely to be suspended as whites, with Latino student suspension 3.1 times greater than whites. Both of these are higher than the national average.

Students with disabilities were suspended at three times the rate of non-disabled peers in Massachusetts, whereas the national average was two-times, said the LCCREJ report.

“Our students lost at least 1,160 school years’ worth of instruction to discipline [that removed them from school] in the 2012-13 school year alone,” said Rahsaan Hall, deputy director of the LCCREJ, in a press release. “It is no wonder we have a so-called achievement gap on our hands.”

Out-of-school suspension increases a student’s likelihood of dropping out, reported the American Academy of Pediatrics.

‘Public’ school

While many believe some charters apply heavy discipline to encourage certain students to leave, there is evidence to support the view that in many cases, students possessing more severe special needs never seek entry at all.

“As far as I know, charters don’t even entertain the possibility of enrolling students with the most severe disabilities. Many of them are not in traditional schools. They are out-placed, and that comes out of the budget, not of the charter schools but the district,” said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools.

Slowey said that charters admit students without knowing their special-education or English-language-learner designation. Once enrolled, a student is assessed for needs. Charters are less likely than BPS schools to put a student on an Individualized Education Program, instead preferring to mainstream them into a general classroom.

“Lots of times a kid arrives at a charter having previously been on IEP, and at the charter is designated as no longer needing those services if they can be taken care of in a general classroom,” he said.

Parents tend to prefer sending high-needs students to district schools because of their greater ability to attend to those needs, said Slowey.

“Frankly, the [SPED students requiring more services] are better served in the district schools because the districts have economies of scale that can provide a higher level of service. And so parents choose to send their kids to the district school because they’re able to provide more services.”

For SY 2014-15, Boston charters’ student body was 15 percent special-education, compared to the district’s 19.5 percent, and charters are 12.5 percent ELL, reported Slowey.

Efforts are being made to target underserved groups. The recent ELL numbers reflect an increase from 2010, when Slowey said they had only two percent. Additionally, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association recently received a $2 million federal grant toward forming collaboratives among charters in which special-needs students in one charter could receive out-of-classroom services from one nearby that is better prepared to serve them, he said

Revenue rivalry

A major force that pits charters and districts against each other is competition for limited school funding.

State reimbursement to district schools when funds follow students to charters is only partial and not always paid. Guisbond said that in FY 2015, Massachusetts public school districts lost $370 million after reimbursement, with Boston losing $105 million.

“The upshot of that is district schools that might have been able to offer things like art and music and social workers, it doesn’t take that many students leaving to lose enough money that they may have to lay off a social worker or cut off on student access to those things that are so important to students and families,” she said.