Saturday, July 12, 2014

Some thoughts about the Senate charter bill (S2262)

A few thoughts from me on the Senate bill ahead of amendments being due Monday:
  • It still has the cap lift to 23% in the "lowest" 10% of districts. Even with that calculation now including growth, that's still pulling money straight out of urban schools and putting it into schools that don't take everyone, that hemorrage kids, that have appallingly little accountability. This is simply a bad idea.
  • It still has this "challenge" school designation, which is just a way of expanding Level 4 without the funding that we've come to expect with Level 4's. It concentrates even more (unaccountable) power in the hands of the Commissioner, it's unwarranted (districts are already active on Level 3's), and it's unhelpful (another round of 'turnaround' isn't the answer). Strike it.
  • This whole craziness about saying to a Level 5 receiver "hey, go ahead and spend that money any ol' way you want" is just...crazy. These are public funds. The whole deal with school committees passing budgets (much like Legislatures) is for there to be some degree of fiscal transparency and accountability. Why would you remove that?
BUT it's clear that the Senators not only have heard from their districts; they're listening! Thus, some praise and some suggestions:
  • The Senate version has the "no increase in charter spending without reimbursement" language, the language that the charter lobby threw a temper tantrum* about; this is how the bill never got out of Joint Committee. It seems the Senate's really convinced on this part, which is very much appreciated and appropriate, as right now the state isn't living up to the commitments it has made on funding. The only power the Legislature has on this is the funding power and the overall cap; the Board of Ed controls the charter approvals. 
  • To that end, school committees have repeatedly called for local communities to be a required part of the approval process, as is true in many other states in the country. Both in terms of fiscal oversight (where is the money going) and in terms of what is actually needed in the community, this part of the process makes a great deal of sense. Language to this end would be a good addition.
  • The bit about charter schools actually fulfilling their function under the law--recall that this was not to target some particular population, but to provide a laboratory for new education models and ideas--is a good step forward, but some specificity in the language on how that is to be shown would be useful. In other words, if a charter school says they're doing this, is that good enough? It shouldn't be. 
  • Likewise, looking at attrition/stability is a good start on the counsel or discipline out issues we've seen with charter schools. However, the Act Relative to the Achievement Gap requires charters to be reflective of the communities they serve...which hasn't been enforced. Language calling for that and tying it to charter renewal is needed.
  • It's remarkable to see transportation mentioned. For FY15, the Worcester Public Schools are budgeting $75,000 just for charter schools' extra days. That isn't something we decide, and yet we pay for it. Likewise, the schools that do their own transportation simply hand us a bill; we have no oversight for how those costs are incured. Anything to remedy any part of that is appropriate.
  • The study of the system of charter school funding is overdue. Another piece that I've heard called for, year after year, is state funding of charters. The state has approved them; have the state fund them directly from the state budget. Language to this end would be useful. 
I'll be pulling together a letter to Worcester's Senators over the next day or so. I would urge you to get in touch with your Senators ASAP. The lobbying this week is going to be heavy. 

*which is why I'm a bit confused on why the charter lobby is actively pushing for this bill. Do they think it's the best they'll get, or do they think that they can remove that in conference committee?

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