Scarce Funds Flow to Charters, Squeezing Traditional Public Schools

Public school districts are projected to lose more than $303 million to Commonwealth charter schools in the 2011-2012 school year (minus some short-term reimbursement), an increase of more than 9% over last year, and the first time in the 15-year history of this privatization initiative that costs have topped $300 million, according to figures recently released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The dramatic increase is due in large measure to a state law enacted in January, the so-called Act Relative to the Achievement Gap, that allows Commonwealth charter schools to take up to 12% of a public school district’s budget, up from the previous cap of 9%, in districts with low MCAS scores. That 12% figure will rise to 18% by 2017. The law also allows for the first time networks or chains of charter schools, the initial step in creating privatized school systems.

Charter students represent less than 2.7% of public school enrollment but are receiving more than 7% of total state education aid.

Local taxpayers have no say over charter school costs, which are deducted from a public school district’s Chapter 70 state education aid, based on the number of students attending charter schools.

The dramatic increase in charter costs compounds the financial hardship for public school districts reeling from a 4% cut in state education aid because of declining state tax revenue. While public schools are forced to cut, charter schools continue to expand.

The Boston Public Schools are the most heavily impacted in the state. The BPS will see more than $64 million diverted to privately run Commonwealth charter schools this year, forcing the city to eliminate programs, close schools, and cut teaching and support positions. Deeper cuts are likely as the city’s charter costs rise. Boston is expected to lose as much as $130 million per year by 2017, under the legislation approved in January that will allow Commonwealth charter schools to take up to 18% of a public school district’s budget, in cities where MCAS scores fall in the lowest 10% statewide.

Given the link between poverty and MCAS scores, the financial losses will be most keenly felt in the state’s poorest school districts, including Worcester and Springfield, each projected to lose $21.2 million this year to charter schools, Lawrence, projected to lose $10.5 million, Lowell, $10.2 million, and Holyoke, $6.9 million.

In some cases, charter schools are absorbing nearly all of a district’s state education aid, leaving public schools entirely dependent on local property taxes, capped each year at a 2.5% increase, and undermining the equalizing intent of the Education Reform Act of 1993. In the next fiscal year, Cambridge, which will face charter school costs of more than $10.4 million, is projected to lose all of its state school aid and a portion of its municipal state aid to charters as well. This is because city’s charter costs will likely exceed its Chapter 70 allocation and, in that case, state law allows charter tuition to be diverted from state aid supporting other municipal services.

Meanwhile, compared to high-poverty districts, few, if any, Commonwealth charter schools enroll the same percentage of children from low-income families, children with special needs, or children learning English as a second language – the very students who struggle most with standardized MCAS tests. Contrary to the claims of the powerful charter school lobby, the charter initiative has left public schools with a higher and higher percentage of challenging students and fewer resources to offer them.
–CPS Editorial Staff

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