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Cabral bill begins State House discussion on charter school funding

Date Published: May 15, 2019

Author: Susannah Sudborough

BOSTON — State Rep. Antonio Cabral has quietly put a bill before the state Legislature that would change the way charter schools are funded, lessening the burden on district public schools and municipalities and shifting some of the funding directly from the state to the charter schools.

Divisions over charter schools, and their funding, have deeply divided the city of New Bedford over the past year as Alma del Mar has tried to expand its enrollment by nearly 1,200 seats and an additional two schools.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education granted Alma the right to expand by 450 seats in a West End neighborhood school and the right to 594-seats in a district-wide school in New Bedford if the 450-seat school is not approved. Mayor Jon Mitchell and the New Bedford Educators Association have both opposed the expansion saying it would hurt the district public schools programming as well as raise havoc with the city budget. As much as $8 million would be diverted from the district schools or other parts of the city budget, according to Mitchell.

Charter school funding has been a contested topic around the state since the cap on the number of charters in Massachusetts was lifted in 2011, expansion exploded, especially in underperforming districts like New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence, Springfield, and Boston.

Despite the complaints, a 2018 MIT study found that the effects of charter school expansion on public school spending and performance were “benign, and even positive.”

Currently, charter schools receive most of their funding through tuition payments taken out of local district public schools’ funding. Those payments are based on an assumption of what the public school would have spent on the student who has moved to the charter, and thus the number varies by district.

The state currently reimburses district public schools for students who move to charter public schools to account for the unpredictable loss in funding. The first year, schools receive 100% of what they would have received with the student. The next four years, they receive 25%. In recent years, however, the Legislature has chosen other spending priorities over reimbursing the district schools for the full cost of the charters.

The new bill would, as intended, retain the amount of money charter schools receive, since it does not reduce the tuition payments or how they are calculated, but simply changes how the charters receive the money. After a school district redirects the statewide average local contribution to a charter, any additional amount owed for the particular district would be paid directly to the charter by the state. So there would be a cap on how much money any individual school district had to pay.

“The way it is now is unsustainably draining public schools,” said Cabral, a 29-year veteran Democrat in the House. “It is not sustainable for the city taxpayers.”

The funding process

John Robertson, legislative director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said that cities and towns say their biggest cost is currently their loss of funding to charter schools.

“Cities and schools have to sit down and figure out what to do about the loss,” said Robertson. “The cities end up taking from their own revenue and are not able to fund other important things.”

Robertson also said he believes the tuition payment system currently in place is significantly flawed.

“The money following the child system doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s based on the false assumption that when a school loses a student that costs go down.”

Schools have lots of unavoidable costs that are not changed by the number of students, Robertson said.

He said any cost reduction for the district schools would be incremental, and a small portion of current tuition payments.

Cabral predicted that his bill would save the district schools a lot of money.

Based on 2019 charter tuition payment calculations by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the statewide average local contribution would be $6,636 per pupil. In New Bedford, municipal tuition payments for Alma del Mar for 2019 are $11,693 per pupil. They are $13,609 per pupil for City on a Hill charter school (also located in New Bedford), meaning local schools in some cases could save around half the money they are currently contributing.

“This will be better for communities across the state, especially gateway cities,” said Cabral.

Rep. Paul Schmid said that while he would be open to changing how charter schools are funded he is undecided on this particular bill.

“The proposed formula would be favorable for New Bedford, I don’t know how it would work out for the charter schools,” said Schmid, who represents Westport, parts of Fall River and Freetown, and the far North End of New Bedford, a suburban-like part of the city.

Cabral emphasized that his proposal is also about accountability.

“It should be an open process where the state has a stake,” he said. “Right now it’s completely off budget.”

Cabral explained that charter schools do not currently have to make a case as to why they need money, other than simply having students, because their money is unappropriated by the Legislature. Rather the Legislature appropriates it for the district schools, which in turn redirect it to the charter schools.

“They need to be accountable to DESE (the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) and the Legislature,” said Cabral. “If their money is appropriated, there will be more accountability as to how they function and if they are achieving their goals.”

The charter view

Charter school advocates insist that their schools are being held accountable.

Dominic Slowey, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Charter School Association, said that charters are already overseen by the State Board of Education and a local board of trustees. He said they must follow all the same laws as public schools, such as taking the MCAS, and have to file reports to DESE, including budget audits and performance reviews to ensure they are following their mission.

“People can’t get past the fact that we function differently than a traditional public school, so they think we should have non-traditional funding,” he said.

Slowey said charter schools oppose Cabral’s bill because it does not address the underlying problem of schools having insufficient funds. He said the real problem lies in the lack of reimbursement by the state, an outdated Chapter 70 funding formula and underfunding of schools by the Legislature. He believes that municipalities are unfairly focusing on charter schools as a cost.

“This bill creates a separate but unequal system for funding charter schools,” Slowey said.

Slowey asserted that if charters become a line item in the state budget, they will become particularly vulnerable to budget cuts. Charter opponents would try to restrict the money going to these schools, he said.

“This could hurt or strangle us,” he said. “Our kids would be sitting ducks.”

Rep. Christopher Hendricks, D-New Bedford, who supports Cabral’s bill, said he would rather see (public) charter school funding cut before public (district) schools. Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, said he is opposed to expanding charter school funding unless they present a need that is not being met.

Schmid pointed out that while charter schools would be vulnerable to funding cuts, Chapter 70 (state educational aid) appropriations also face funding cuts.

Slowey emphasized that charter school advocates often push for increased Chapter 70 funding, and that they support the changes to the formula recommended by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a consultant group created by the Legislature to review the state’s school funding formula. Also, he said, they advocate for full reimbursement of public school charter diversion for all six years. Cabral’s bill would reduce the number of years when districts are reimbursed to three but it would increase the percentage of reimbursement.

Notably, the recently passed House budget allocates more money for reimbursement of public schools than in recent years, and would change how they are reimbursed. Schools would be given 100% of what they would have received the first year, 60 percent the next and 40% the year after.

Though schools would get 25% less money overall for each student, both Slowey and Schmid said they support this change because they believe that it will get money to schools faster and make it more likely that schools are fully reimbursed.

“Why should we fight for our public school students separately?” asked Slowey.

Public, private or both

Some question the idea that charter schools are public schools. While by the state’s definition, they are public — and would remain under Cabral’s bill, they pull students that would otherwise go to public district schools. Cabral contended they are also private schools because they are not accountable to a public political body, either a School Committee or Legislature. Their facilities are often owned by a private entity, he said.

Hendricks pointed out that charter boards of trustees are not elected, unlike district school committees. Robertson stressed that charter schools do not have an appropriated budget that the public gets to weigh in and vote on.

“These are private organizations funded by public dollars,” said Cabral.

Slowey, however, said that most charter school boards of trustees are made up of local residents, and that they are unpaid and have to be approved by DESE. He said that having a private board of trustees is often good for the school, as it keeps them out of local politics and allows them to be more flexible and independent. Some public district schools, such as Boston, have a school committee appointed by the mayor.

Both charter school advocates and critics have the same refrain: we want charter schools to be treated like everyone else. However, the two sides have a very different idea of what that means.

From Slowey’s perspective, charter schools are public schools. Thus, they are entitled to Chapter 70 funding and should not be a separate budget line item from public schools.

But from Cabral’s perspective, charter schools are not being subject to the same transparency and accountability as other publicly funded programs because of the lack of a direct appropriation and public input.

One point often made by charter school advocates is that they serve disadvantaged communities, specifically racial minorities. A 2013 Stanford University study of Massachusetts charter schools supports this notion. The study said that charter schools have approximately twice as many black and slightly more Hispanic students than the district schools they draw students from, otherwise known as “feeder” schools.

Charter school critics often allege that they are selective in the students they take, that they avoid taking special education and English language learning students or oust students who do not meet academic or conduct requirements. They also may draw the students whose parents are more involved. Charter advocates say the district schools are also selective about students, removing some student populations from the mainstream schools.

Massachusetts law states that charter schools must use a lottery process for admitting students if there are more applicants than open seats. So, charter school advocates say there is little opportunity to discriminate. There are charges that charter schools have a significant attrition rate but few studies prove that contention.

The student body

The Stanford study shows that charter schools take in about half as many English language learning students and about a quarter fewer special needs students than their feeder schools. Since these students usually cost schools more dollars per pupil to educate than the average student, this may be causing public schools to spend more per student on average than charter schools, to the detriment of public schools.

Slowey acknowledged that charter schools have fewer special needs and English language learners and said that those parents may be choosing public schools over charters because district schools already have resources in place to help special needs students.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that charter school teachers are often not required to be certified the way public schools teachers are.

Slowey acknowledged that charter schools do employ teachers that are not certified, but said these teachers are often people with many years of experience in their field who do not have certification because they do not have a teaching degree.

“The certification issue is overblown,” he said. “Just because you are not certified doesn’t mean you aren’t qualified.”

Critics often allege that these schools’ private boards of trustees are in some way profiting from these schools. In Massachusetts, charter schools are required to be non-profit.

There are also debates about the efficacy of charter schools. The Stanford study’s findings on student outcomes is complicated, and shows vast differences based on a charter school’s location, grade levels served and other factors. Overall, the study found that charter school students gained more learning in reading and math than the typical public school student.

Another complaint about charters is that they were created to innovate with learning techniques to help public schools. Currently, Hendricks said there is no data showing that this has happened.

Najimy said that Cabral’s bill may be a temporary way of mitigating the impact of charter schools, but that it is not the solution. That, she said, is fully funding public schools.

Schmid said he wishes there were more collaboration between district and charter schools.

Regardless, he said that Cabral’s bill has opened the door to consider more transparency with charter school funding, which is a positive thing.

“Rep. Cabral presented this as a conversation starter about how we fund charter schools,” Schmid said. “That conversation is important.”

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