By: Megan Moore, Charles Lyang and Alice Shen
BU Statehouse Program
The question of money is the central issue in the Question 2 ballot debate over adding more charter schools in Massachusetts.
Is it a zero sum game where the charter school gains are the public schools’ losses? Or is it a more neutral impact, with the state subsidizing, for a time, public school losses?
The answer, if there is just one, is complicated mix of numbers made even murkier by some realities challenging some theoreticals.
Question 2 would increase the statewide number of charter schools – separately run institutions with more autonomy regarding budgets, curriculum, and hiring. The state cap now limits the number of charter schools to 120; 81 charters are currently operating. Question 2 would allow up to 12 new charters per year with preference would be given to state’s lowest performing districts.
The major controversy about the Question 2 debate is where the money will come from to fund these new schools?
A study published by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation says charter schools aren’t draining money from district schools. The report, funded by The Boston Foundation, offers a macro view of the issue, noting that charter school students represent about 4 percent of the total state student population while accounting for about the same percentage in total statewide education spending.
But the devil is in the details. Save Our Public Schools, the group leading opposition to Question 2, has called the taxpayer foundation’s study “biased and deliberately misleading” because it didn’t include the cost of special education and other costs funded by traditional public school districts.
Filtering through the claims and counter claims about funding comparisons offers plenty of variables for both sides of the Question 2 debate to choose from
The basic marker for school finance is per-student funding – the amount of funding based on costs and student population. Per-pupil spending stands at a statewide average of $13,450 per student. But that number changes from district to district based on a long list of variables, from special education costs, facility age and improvements and even teacher pensions.
Whatever the final per-student number is, it follows a student who transfers from a regular district school to a charter school.
Does that translate to a loss for the school district? Theoretically, no – at least for the first year or so. Under a formula crafted by the Legislature, the money that goes to the charter school is supposed to be covered at 100 percent by the state in the first year and 25 percent of the total for each of the next five years.
But does that money really make the journey? And does it cover all the real costs it takes to run a school district? Therein lies the debate.
Take Boston as an example.
The state’s Chapter 70 formula required the Boston school system to spend $13,500 per pupil in FY2016. To reach that level, the city must contribute $657 million; the state provides $212 million.
Boston has the highest percentage of charter students in the state, with 9,620 pupils or 14.4 percent of the total student population. Boston pays $145 million in charter school tuitions for those student.
But here is where reality intrudes. The state has failed to keep its charter school reimbursement promise since FY2013, underfunding statewide payments by 4 percent, or $2.6 million, in FY2013 to 37 percent, or $47.1 million in FY2016, according the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“If I’m a student, there’s a charter school trust fund that provides money to the school I left,” state Sen. John Keenan said. “But we [the Legislature] haven’t funded that fully, so it’s not occurring.”
That funding lapse has hurt school districts around the state. Ari Sky, New Bedford’s chief financial officer said the state has only reimbursed the city for the first year and half the second year losses.
“Unfortunately, the state has never fulfilled that obligation that is set in law to provide funding,” he said.
Even if the state were to make the full reimbursements, critics of Question 2 say the per-pupil payments don’t fully cover public school losses.
Harneen Chernow, a former member of the State Board of Education, said that even if all the funds do follow the student, the district that they are leaving is still burdened with other operating deficits.
“A few kids leave from a couple grades, a couple classes, in different schools, but you don’t have entire classes leave to go to a charter school and then you can just lay off a teacher,” Chernow said. “That’s not how it works.”