BOSTON — Massachusetts voters may have reason to be confused as they weigh the financial implications of a November ballot question that would allow a dramatic expansion of charter schools.
Supporters and opponents appear to be making contradictory claims about charter school funding and how it affects local public school districts.
A recent television ad claims passage of the question would result in “more funding for public education,” and the pro-Question 2 website charterfactsma.org says Massachusetts has the most generous charter school reimbursement policy in the nation.
In public statements and on the similarly named website getcharterfactsma.org, opponents paint an entirely different picture, arguing school districts lose money to charters even after state reimbursements are taken into account.
Both sides appear to bend the truth to at least some degree in arriving at their competing assertions, one suggesting that school districts gain money when charters open, the other that charters siphon resources away from traditional schools.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
When a student leaves a conventional public school to enroll in a charter school, the funds allocated for that student’s education, including the state’s contribution under the law known as Chapter 70, “follows” the child to the charter school. The money is no longer available to the original school, but that school also has one fewer student to educate.
The state, meanwhile, provides temporary or “transitional” compensation to schools after students leave for charters. The school district receives 100 percent of the per-pupil expense in the first year, and 25 percent in each of the five subsequent years.
Public school districts are projected to pay a total of $536.8 million to charter schools in this fiscal year, while the state is projected to send $85.4 million in reimbursements to districts, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
By subtracting the state reimbursements from the projected payments to charter schools, teachers unions and other ballot question opponents arrive at the figure of $451 million “lost” to charter schools in fiscal 2017. They contend this leads to severe budget cuts, particularly in programs such as art or music.
But the claim that public school districts lose funding when a student moves to a charter is challenged by supporters of Question 2. They note the money simply moves with the student to the charter school, which by definition is still a public school though it operates independently from local school administrators.
Opponents counter that having fewer students to educate doesn’t necessarily translate to savings for conventional schools.
“It doesn’t reduce any costs for the regular school district,” said Tom Gosnell, Massachusetts president for the American Federation of Teachers. “You can’t eliminate a teacher because one student has left a classroom. That is a drain of resources out of schools.”
The claim by supporters that charter schools actually bring more funding for public education is based upon the reimbursements the state provides to school districts after a child leaves a conventional school for a charter. The district doesn’t lose any money, they argue, and actually gains state money it could not otherwise claim had the child remained in the original school.
The compensation is only temporary, however, and opponents correctly point out the state has not always fully funded the reimbursement account.
Will Keyser, a consultant for the pro-charter ballot question group, said there is little fundamental difference between a student moving to a charter school or leaving for another reason, such as to attend a regional vocational school.
“There has never been a problem with that notion until charter schools came along, and now the teachers unions have a problem with that,” Keyser said.
WHY IT MATTERS
Only about 4 percent of public school students in the state attend charter schools, so the fate of the ballot question will largely be decided by voters with no direct stake in the schools.
For many of those residents, the debate over the success or effectiveness of charters could well take a back seat to funding issues, especially if opponents succeed in creating angst about the effect on schools their own children attend.