Massachusetts Charter School Debate Could Turn on Funding

AP Photo/The Christian Science Monitor, Ann Hermes

Boston Collegiate Charter High School algebra teacher, Arielle Zern, reviews for a test with freshmen on June 16, 2014 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. 

In a few weeks, Massachusetts voters will weigh on whether to open more charter schools. Debate on the measure is fierce, as one might expect in a state known for its superior public education system. The pros and cons of charters have been thoroughly hashed and rehashed, but the discussion about how to pay for these new schools, should the question pass, can’t be heard above the siren song of school choice. But fiscal reality bites: The Bay State strains to finance the schools it has, much less batches of new ones. Many local leaders continue to fret about what might happen to their municipal bottom lines if the “Question 2” ballot initiative passes. And they should.

The initiative proposes to allow state education officials to approve up to 12 new charters or the expansion of existing charters annually, not to exceed 1 percent of statewide public school enrollment. If the board received more than 12 applications, new charters would go to those districts whose academic performance places them in the bottom 25 percent of schools statewide in the previous two years and where there is significant parent demand for additional options. Massachusetts now has 81 charter schools. The maximum that state law currently allows is 120.

Charter school advocates argue they want to let a thousand flowers bloom in the educational marketplace. If more money goes to charters, traditional schools left behind will just have to get leaner and meaner. As The American Prospect found earlier this year, some parents, teachers, and school superintendents have expressed concerns about the fiscal strain that the new schools will place on school districts and city and town governments left to plug budget gaps. Some enterprising local residents have pulled together detailed analyses of how new charter schools would negatively affect the fiscal health of their school districts.

The ballot question does not address how to pay for new charters: It simply asks voters to allow the state to approve more of them. That means that cities and towns may have to place even greater reliance on the property tax to fund schools than they already do, which, in turn, would force city leaders in places where charters are in high demand to make the dreaded ask to increase taxes. Massachusetts Municipal Association legislative director John Robertson says that cities and towns can’t really separate education funding from the rest of the budget. “When cities and towns are … losing revenues that are used to pay tuition to charter schools, it means they’ve got to fill the gap,” Robertson told the Prospect. “It’s going to come out of something else.”

A large measure of the responsibility (or blame) rests with Bay State lawmakers who have failed to tackle the financial side of the education ledger. The funding mechanism for public schools has not been updated in years. Cities and towns face rising costs, not only for schools, but also for city services and municipal employees’ health insurance and pension plans. State aid has not kept pace. To add insult to budgetary injury, state-allocated reimbursement funds to temporarily ease the sting of seeing state education dollars walk out the door have dwindled.

Charlie Baker, the Bay State’s popular Republican Governor, has been the most vocal advocate for charter school expansion, but the fate of expansion has always rested with the legislature where the Democrats have an overwhelming majority. With a view to avoiding a bitter ballot battle, state Senate leaders proposed a slate of charter reforms that included   an increase in the number of charters. The proposal went nowhere when Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo made his opposition clear. In August, DeLeo said that a statewide vote should have been avoided, but lamented that the Senate’s plan was “unworkable.”

That’s cold comfort to people like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who was once a member of a Boston charter school board and now opposes the ballot initiative, When the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a conservative public policy group, published a late September report that contended that charter school funding did not have a negative impact on traditional public school spending, Walsh invited the group to “come talk to my [chief financial officer.]”

An earlier report by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a organization backed by businesses and nonprofits, also noted that Boston crafts its school district budget to minimize impacts to traditional schools despite the dollars flowing to charters schools. But to make that policy work, other city departments (with the exception of public safety) receive smaller annual budget increases. The bureau concluded that Boston needs to “right-size” the district by closing schools and laying off teachers and other staff to avoid a drastic reworking of the rest of city expenditures.

Charter school opponents have their work cut out for them. With dark money being shoveled into the state at an alarming rate, the charter school expansion ballot campaign may end up being the most expensive one in Massachusetts history. Great Schools Massachusetts, one of the key conduits for the dark money-fueled Yes forces, receives funds from Families for Excellent Schools, a New York nonprofit creation of well-heeled hedge-fund managers.

Individual out-of-state contributors include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Walmart heirs Jim and Alice Walton who have donated substantial sums. The Massachusetts Teachers Association headed by Barbara Madeloni, is one of the top leaders of the opposition. Yes groups have so far raised twice as much: $15 million to the No contingent’s $7 million.

A mid-September poll of 700 likely voters showed that 49 percent intended to vote yes, while 39 percent planned to vote no. Another 12 percent remained undecided. But an early October survey from different pollsters found that 47 percent of 403 likely voters opposed the question; 34 percent supported it with 18 percent undecided.

Some observers like Yawu Miller, senior editor of the Bay State Banner, a Boston metropolitan area African American newspaper, once expressed skepticism about the opponents’ chances. How could underfunded traditional public school advocates relying on a door-to-door effort make inroads against dark money giants willing to spend tens of millions of dollars? If opinion has indeed shifted against the measure, he chalked up the change to the power of grassroots mobilization. “I didn’t think you could win a state-wide ballot campaign with a ground game,” Miller told freelance journalist and public education advocate Jennifer Berkshire. “They seem to have been able to get into some pretty far-flung communities and get their message out that way.”

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