It’s not anti-charter to oppose lifting cap — CommonWealth Magazine
NEXT MONTH’S BALLOT question on statewide charter school growth may seem like a stark choice between two systems: local district schools or state-chartered institutions. But that’s not the case. Charter and district schools will continue to coexist in Massachusetts regardless of the outcome on November 8.
The real issue before voters is public finance.
Question Two is an unfunded mandate. Uncapped charter school growth means that municipal budgets throughout the Commonwealth will suffer without a fix to state education financing. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Boston.
Under the current cap, the Commonwealth has failed to live up to its charter reimbursement obligations to the Boston Public Schools for three years running — to the tune of $48 million. Mayor Walsh has bridged this gap in the district’s budget by reallocating general City funds, but tradeoffs in local budgets cannot continue without financial relief from the state. The alternatives include unsustainable cutbacks for basic city services like public safety, snow removal and, yes, district schools. Uncapping charter school growth will only speed this growing divide.
There have been efforts to achieve a balance between charter growth and fiscal reform. Mayor Walsh put forth a modest cap lift proposal during the last legislative session that included reasonable state education funding reform. The Senate’s RISE Act sought a similar result. Yet neither proposal became law, nor is there any indication that a school financing fix is on the legislature’s agenda.
All of which casts the current choice in a darker light. Question Two would allow 12 new charter schools to open across the state each year. According to the city’s budget director, relatively modest growth of 3 new charter schools per year in Boston would increase the City’s annual charter assessment to $800 million over the next decade. That number is roughly four times the state’s current education funding provided for all Boston students. Where will the money come from?
The answer lies in municipal budgets all across the Commonwealth. Cap lift advocates cite the recent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report on Question Two for its conclusion that moderate charter growth under the current cap has had no effect on district finances. What that report failed to forecast is the effect of uncapped charter growth on local budgets.
Past is not prologue. Uncapped charter growth will surely lead to district reorganization and school closures, but the transition will create inefficiencies that add costs to cities and towns. If fully funded by the state, the charter school funding reimbursement formula roughly accounts for the effects of capped growth. Lifting the cap throws off the formula, and without a funding fix, cities and towns will be left holding the bill.
There is an alternative: public district schools and charters can continue to coexist and thrive under the cap. Massachusetts residents should celebrate that our schools consistently outperform every state in the nation. According to a Forbes magazine report, if Massachusetts were a country its educational system would rank ninth in the world (tied with Japan). We can continue these achievements.
With no change to the current cap, the number of charter school seats in Boston alone stands to grow by 4,000 over the next decade — that’s 7 percent of the current enrollment in the Boston Public Schools (and more than half of the current Boston charter schools enrollment). At the same time, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently elevated 12 new Boston Public Schools to Level 1 status. BPS is one of the highest-performing urban public school districts in the nation, with 46 schools at levels 1 or 2 and 88 percent in the top three levels of performance. BPS does this with a linguistically, socioeconomically diverse population of all abilities, and is succeeding in narrowing the opportunity and achievement gaps for our most vulnerable students.
That’s not to say our work is done — far from it. Massachusetts owes it to our children to avoid jeopardizing the great strides that our schools have made. Together we have achieved remarkable results through a well-financed, mixed-delivery system. Let’s keep the cap on charter school growth and seek sensible financing reform to ensure that all of our children succeed.
Michael Loconto is the father of three Boston Public Schools students and a member of the Boston School Committee.