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When BPS gains students but not funding is focus of hearing

Jule Pattison-Gordon
When BPS gains students but not funding is focus of hearing
Carlos Rojas-Alvarez, education policy associate at Youth on Board, testified at the hearing. He called against the expansion of charter schools and “[their] funding mechanisms that starve traditional public schools of resources they desperately need.”

City Councilor Tito Jackson convened a hearing last week to examine another cause of Boston Public Schools’ funding woes: students who return to BPS from charter schools mid-year.

If a student chooses to attend a charter school, funds that normally would flow to BPS to educate the child are instead directed to the charter. However, if the student leaves the charter and returns to BPS during the school year, BPS then must absorb the costs to educate the child, but on a budget only intended to cover the cost of the original enrollment, said speakers at the hearing.

“This has financial implications for the Boston Public Schools as well as the quality of the schools in our district, based on the fact that if other students are returning and we don’t get the dollars associated with them, that actually leaves the Boston Public School system to pick up the slack,” Jackson said.

Nevertheless, school officials, charter supporters and charter critics dispute the impact of these student transfers.

Two funding systems

The BPS budgeting process does not accommodate the addition of new students during the academic year.

The state allocates funding to BPS under provisions of Chapter 70 aid, which requires local governments to provide a certain minimum level of funding as well. The dollar amounts are based on enrollment numbers from Oct. 1 of the previous year and are not adjusted to match changes in student counts, said Roger Hatch, administrator of school finance for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Most of BPS’s other funding sources do not reflect current enrollment either, Hatch said.

“There are very few that are current-year calculations.”

BPS’ budget largely is set by July or August, said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, co-chair of the Citywide Parent Council of the Boston Public Schools.

This means that while district schools accept transferring students during the fall or spring, they must support those students on funds only intended to cover the students they already had.

“When BPS funds classes and schools, they fund them in September. They hire specialists, gym teachers, people who are school counselors in September at the latest,” Berents-Weeramuni said. “When students come back to us, the hiring has already been done. Students are asked to be provided services that the hiring has already been done for.”

In charter schools, however, funding is adjusted to accommodate changes in student body counts.

A portion of state funds allocated to BPS as Chapter 70 aid instead is directed to charter schools as “charter school tuition.” The amount reflects actual enrollment numbers on Oct. 1 of the current school year and is distributed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in monthly installments, Hatch said. In February, charter administrators are required to disclose the size of their student populations. DESE finishes processing the information in the spring — April at the earliest — and adjusts the following months’ payments to reflect any students who left or arrived.

As a result, future installments may be reduced in concert with a decline in enrollment figures and to correct for extra funds provided while a student was not in attendance.

Extent of impact

On average, 82 students transferred from various Boston charter schools to BPS schools during the four year period between 2008 and 2012, according to information provided by BPS. Per-pupil expenditures average $15,227, according to BPS budgeting information for SY2013-2014. These figures suggest the public schools must absorb an average of $1.2 million per year.

However, Hatch said that he expected that the impact of the additional students on BPS would be minor. Absorbing more students would require additional materials, but not generate other charges, such as for more teachers, he said.

“In a city the size of Boston, they probably would be spread among many different schools. It’s doubtful they would necessitate the hiring of an additional teacher or extra space. The marginal cost, except for materials, is zero,” he said.

Material costs seemed significant to some involved in BPS.

Richard Stutman, president of Boston Teachers Union, spoke this fall about district schools that struggle to afford soap and toilet paper. At the hearing, Jessica Tang, director of organizing for BTU, described the plight of schools where, last year, teachers resorted to fundraising to pay for paper.

Additionally, BPS advocates said at the hearing that when the district takes in mid-year transfers, not only does it have to educate more students with fewer resources, it has to do so for students with greater needs.

Twenty-three percent of students who transferred out of charters and into BPS mid-year during SY2008-2009 and SY2011-2012 were students with disabilities, according to information provided by BPS.

The cost to BPS to educate a regular student is $11,855, according to BPS budget listings for school years 2012-2013 through 2014-2015. By comparison, the cost to educate a special education student with moderate needs is $20,705, and the price tag for educating a special education student requiring a substantially separate classroom is and $32,955.

Unequal impact?

One question that emerges repeatedly: If BPS has to educate more students without a proportionate increase in resources, does that contribute to disproportionate harm?

During SY2008-2009 and SY 2011-2012, the students who transferred from charters to BPS mid-year were primarily boys of color. Sixty-two percent were black, 26 percent Hispanic and 64 percent male, according to information provided by BPS.

Additionally, regardless of the cause — be it mid-year transfers or differences in which kinds of students apply to or select BPS — there are indications that district schools may educate different populations than the charter schools.

District schools serve greater percentages of male students, English language learners and students who are eligible for free lunch, when compared to charters, Kathie Skinner, former director of the Center for Education Policy and Practice at the Massachusetts Teacher Association, said at the hearing. (In contrast, a higher percentage of charter students are eligible for reduced lunch).

Impact on special education students

Debate continues about the extent to which district schools educate more — or more needy — special education students, and thus the extent to which special education students are affected by strains on BPS resources.

District schools serve proportionally more special education students in some grades, although the gap between district and charter enrollment is closing, according to a study released in November by Elizabeth Setren, a PhD student in MIT’s department of Economics.

In 2014, students who were classified at special ed at the time of their application ended up enrolling in greater percentages in 9th grade Boston charter schools than district schools, Setren reported. The gap in special needs enrollment in middle school charters and district schools narrowed but did not close at that time.

Meanwhile, Kathie Skinner argues that the kinds of special education students served by the two school systems may not be the same.

“If you look at who [Boston] charters are educating with regards to disability statuses, they’re not educating the same students,” Skinner said.

Public schools tend to enroll students with higher levels of disabilities, she wrote in a Commonwealth magazine article.

“[Statewide] students with moderate to severe disabilities are either not enrolled [at charter schools] or under-enrolled when compared with their host and sending district.”

District and charter schools offer different special education services, which may influence which kinds of special needs students apply.

Charter schools are nearly three times as likely to put special needs students in inclusionary classrooms, which means they are in the same classroom as other students, according to Setren. Meanwhile, options provided by BPS schools include full- or part-day inclusion in general education classrooms, substantially separate classrooms and out-of-district programs.

Missing funding

By many accounts, district schools are underfunded, and returning students are not the only part of the problem.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission announced in November that the formula used to assess budget needs of schools needs dramatic updates, to the tune of millions of dollars.

Exacerbating this is the state’s recent failure to reimburse BPS for overhead funds that do not disappear when money follows students to charters. Katie Hammer, budget director for Boston, said the state under-reimbursed BPS by $12 million in FY15 and $18 million in FY16. A further complication: Any reimbursement funds that are paid are given to the city as general revenue, and not required to be directed back into schools, Hatch said.