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Elected officials air views on lifting the charter school cap

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Elected officials air views on lifting the charter school cap
Gov. Charlie Baker announced his legislation to raise the cap on charter schools in front of the Brooke Charter School in Mattapan.

Education activists and elected officials turned out last week for a marathon hearing on proposals to lift the cap on the state’s charter schools, the opening skirmish in one of the nation’s most heated battles over public education funding.

Governor Charlie Baker spoke in support of his proposal that would lift the cap on charter schools’ share of school funding from 18 percent to 23 percent, citing the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s contested count of 37,000 students on charter schools waiting lists.

“Today, despite all this positive progress, the difference in overall student achievement in underperforming school districts and the rest of the Commonwealth remains too high, while some 37,000 children sit on waiting lists, trying to get into the Commonwealth’s very successful charter school network,” Baker said.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also advocated for lifting the cap to 23 percent, but proposed that it be lifted half a percent a year, stretching the lift over the next 10 years.

“I know that many are calling for the cap to be raised even higher, or removed completely,” Walsh said in written testimony. “I am convinced that such a dramatic change would be reckless under the current funding mechanism, and unwise under any circumstances.”

If Walsh’s testimony set him in opposition to Baker, he wasn’t alone. Elected officials, parent activists and students expressed reservations about the effects of increasing the number of charter schools. Charter schools draw their funding from the local school districts where their students reside, but are not controlled by local government. They are incorporated by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Competing for funds

For each student enrolled, sending districts are required to pay the charter school an amount equivalent to their average per-pupil spending. While the state is required to partially reimburse districts for the lost funding, as Walsh pointed out, the state never has.

“The public charter tuition reimbursements required by law are being increasingly under-funded — this year by more than 50 percent. This ongoing disparity has translated into shortfalls of $12.2 million in FY15 and $18.6 million in FY16, for Boston alone,” Walsh said.

Because charter funding and reimbursements are channeled through the state’s Chapter 70 aid to local school districts, many point to Boston’s diminished share of that revenue.

“Last year the City of Boston received $211 million from the state,” City Councilor Tito Jackson told the Banner. “One hundred and four million dollars went to 8,500 students in charter schools. The other $107 million went to 57,000 students in Boston public schools. The funding formula is not fair and it leaves the Boston Public Schools with a deficit every year.”

Walsh proposed that the state reimburse local districts sending students to charter schools to the tune of 100 percent of the funds lost to charters in the first year a student attends a charter, 50 percent in the second year and 25 percent in the third year.

“The state must be committed to charter school growth not just in principle, but as a financial priority, in the same way that cities are embracing a changing portfolio of schools,” he testified.

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry agreed with Walsh’s assessment.

“It’s really important we focus on funding,” she said. “If there are new charters, but no new money being put in the system, it’s going to hurt the district schools.”

Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Secretary Jim Peyser testified in favor of raising the cap on charter schools from 18 percent to 23 percent.

The larger battle

Last week’s hearing comes as charter school supporters are collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would eliminate the cap on new charter schools in Massachusetts. The New York-based pro-charter school organization, Families for Excellent Schools, opened a Massachusetts office in Boston last year and has hired seven staff members.

At the time, the state Senate resisted calls to raise the cap, citing the same lack of funding Walsh referenced in his remarks last week. Rep. Russell Holmes and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz advanced a compromise bill that would have tied raising the cap to the state fully funding reimbursements to school districts, but that measure met with stiff resistance from charter school supporters, who then vowed to file a ballot petition to lift the cap.

In March this year, three attorneys from prominent Boston law firms filed a lawsuit charging that the current statewide cap on charters violates students’ civil rights by limiting their access to quality education.

The state’s teachers unions and several Boston parent groups entered the fray, organizing opposition to the ballot question. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents teachers in suburban, small town and rural districts, and American Federation of Teachers, which represents Boston teachers and those on other larger cities, are funding community-based organizations to advocate on behalf of school districts.

Boston’s looming battle mirrors similar pushes for more charters in major cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles — cities where the charters are pushing past 20 percent of school enrollment.

As in other cities, the battle in Boston comes down to funding.

“The underlying issue I have about the Legislature raising the cap is that people are advocating for only one group of students to receive more funding,” Jackson said. “It’s like having twins, but only advocating for one of them.”

Questionable outcomes

While charter school advocates in Massachusetts point to higher test scores at charter schools, Massachusetts State Auditor Suzanne Bump said a 2014 audit of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education called the state’s data into question.

“We especially wanted to know whether the student bodies of charters shared the demographic characteristics of the sending districts, as the law requires, and whether there were measurable differences in the academic outcomes of the competing systems,” Bump said at the hearing. “These concerns have been part of the charter school debate for over 20 years, and we hoped that an examination of the data, using government auditing standards, might lead to conclusions that could be accepted and used by all sides in the debate. As the audit indicates, however, we could not answer those questions because we found the data collected and published by DESE to be unreliable.”

Bump also cautioned lawmakers against relying on Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data, including the 37,000 students said to be on charter school waitlists — she cited a 2014 audit her office conducted, which found that the state agency had not ensured the reliability of data it received from schools.

“More than 20 years after the passage of the law authorizing public funds to be spent on private schools, the debate about charter schools is still largely a philosophical one, and the battles in which the sides engage are still determined almost entirely by political power, not by evidence,” Bump testified. “After two decades and the transfer of millions of public dollars into the hands of private charter schools, there is still little more than anecdotal evidence of outcomes to support the contention that charter schools are better suited to meet the needs of our students and charter schools are still experiments.”

Jackson told the Banner that while charter schools often are cited for yielding higher test scores, by other metrics their outcomes aren’t much different from district schools.

“As many of these schools state, the objective is for kids to end up in college,” he said. “The most recent data shows that Boston Public Schools students enter college at a rate of 51 percent and charter schools at 46 percent.”

Jackson said district school graduates were also more likely to graduate from college than charter school graduates.