Cutting from Public Schools to Increase Charter Funding
Bay State Banner article discusses the real implications of reallocating public funds to charter schools.
After incoming school Superintendent Tommy Chang announced the appointment of his new chief of staff, Makeeba McCreary, a consultant who previously worked for a pro-charter schools organization, local education activists launched a petition calling for her ouster.
That petition, titled Keep Corporate Education Reformers out of Boston Public Schools, which as of Monday had garnered 277 signatures, underscores deep distrust of Families for Excellent Schools the firm that hired McCreary as a contract worker. The New York-based organization has locked horns with Mayor Bill DiBlasio over charter school funding, reportedly spending $3.6 million on an advertising campaign, and last year turned out an estimated 13,000 demonstrators to the state capital in Albany to support lifting New York’s state cap on charter school expansion.
FES, which also has a chapter in Connecticut, opened its Massachusetts office last year in the wake of a failed bid by charter school supporters to lift the Massachusetts cap on new charters. While FES staff and volunteers repeatedly have maintained that the group is not organizing exclusively in support of charter schools, their ongoing petition, which calls on legislators to “Give every child access to an excellent public school in his or her neighborhood — whether it’s a district or a charter school,” is widely seen as the opening salvo in a coming fight to lift the charter school cap. If the more than 10,000 signatures the group claims to have garnered so far is any indication, FES is ready to do battle.
At the heart of the fight is a competition over public funding. Charters receive their funding from the school districts in which they operate, drawing upon the average per-pupil allocation calculated for a given fiscal year.
Under the current state law, charters can claim no more than 18 percent of a district’s funding, limiting the number of charters that can operate in any given district.
Although the state is required to partially reimburse school districts for the funding they lose to charters, the state has not consistently fully funded the reimbursements, compounding the loss of funding districts face due to rising costs of health insurance and compensation.
Parents interviewed by the Banner said the schools their children attend have been losing funding for music, art, after-school programming and sports. On a larger scale, the Boston Public Schools has phased out busing for 7th and 8th graders and closed several schools in the last two years.
The pervasive budget cuts in Boston’s schools were a major factor in the resurgence of parent organizing that culminated last year in an unprecedented turnout of district school supporters who lobbied successfully at the State House against lifting the cap on new charter schools.
The charter cap-lifting push was defeated in April 2014. Last August, Families for Excellent Schools began organizing. In a November weekday rally at Faneuil Hall, the group drew what organizers said was more than 2,000 parents and students. While speakers did not advocate specifically for charter schools, they did reference FES’s claim that 77,000 children in Massachusetts attend “persistently failing schools.”
In the wake of defeated attempts to lift the funding cap, local charter school backers said they would consider a ballot referendum on abolishing it. FES officials have not said what they plan to do. Their signature-collecting campaign, called Unify Boston, does not mention charters at all.
With four staff members in its Massachusetts office and a board thick with hedge fund managers who have helped the organization tap funders such as the Walton Foundation, the Vanguard Chartable Endowment Program and other corporate donors, FES seems well-poised to lobby Massachusetts legislators.
When charter schools were introduced in Massachusetts in 1993, they were sold as a way to introduce healthy competition to school districts, bringing in innovative approaches to education that would inform the way district schools operate.
Whether or not that’s happened, district school supporters say charters operate with unfair advantages. They graduate fewer special education students and fewer English language learners. And while many boast high college acceptance rates, many also graduate far fewer students than they admit.
Citywide Parent Council member Angie Camacho argues that the charters’ ability to effectively cherry-pick students undermines competition with the district schools.
“I agree that, in essence, healthy competition creates success,” she said. “What I don’t agree with is charter schools ability to select or manage-out students who performance affects their numbers. They should have the same responsibility that BPS has to educate every student.”
Camacho argues that Boston, a city with world-class universities and a booming economy, should spend more on educating its students.
“We all want the same thing,” she said. “We shouldn’t be cutting each other off to get at it.”
But with declining state aid, a limited political will to raise taxes and a funding mechanism that requires charters to grow at the expense of district schools, the debate on charter school expansion may well be settled at the ballot box.