Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Testimony before the Joint Committee on Education: charter schools

Good morning, Madame Chairs. My name is Tracy O’Connell Novick and I am a six-year member of the Worcester School Committee. I am here today on behalf of my fellow members from Worcester, who unanimously support Senator Michael Moore’s bill S321, requiring local authorization of charter schools that use local funding. This is also reflects years of advocacy by the Mass Association of School Committees.
S321 requires local authorization for charter schools that will receive local funding. If a charter is instead authorized by the state, the state pays for it.
I suspect the first response is that this would be impossible. I would respectfully point out that this is just how Mass Academy of Math and Science’s budget works. Mass Academy is state-chartered, working with WPI, and their budget is a line-item allocation in the state budget. So it is not only possible; you’re doing it currently.
This is in marked contrast to Worcester’s experience with Spirit of Knowledge Charter School. In 2010, a delegation from Worcester testified before the Board of Education regarding Spirit of Knowledge’s application for a charter. We laid out, in detail, the issues with the proposal: the founder’s troubling history with regard to management; the substantial lacks in the administration and facilities plans; the holes in recruiting a student body that reflected Worcester’s population; and, most telling, a fiscal plan that simply did not work. At the time, our CFO testified:
This proposed school will spend 1 out of every 3 dollars on non-instructional expenses.  The school will have 13.5 non-instructional and administrative staff for a school with less than 600 students...there are items in the application which seriously question the financial viability of the school.  In fact, the proposed spending plan is out-of-balance during the three year period submitted...The Board should reject this recommendation from the Commissioner.  Although mathematics appears to be a core focus of this school...the financial plan just simply does not add up!  
The charter was granted.
In 2013, the school closed in October, for all of the reasons listed above, with the finances finally clobbering the school for good.
And 150 students were back on the doorstep of the Worcester Public Schools in the first week of November.
We told you so. And we were ignored.

Madame Chairs, the current system is questionable in its Constitutionality. The partnership laid out by John Adams in Chapter 5, Section II is for education to be “the duty of legislatures and magistrates.” That is you, yes, at the state level, but it is also, we--Adams’ “magistrates”--at the local level.

As the current chartering system stands, it is only legislatures--not magistrates--that are overseeing education within charter schools. As a result, there is no local accountability (budgetary or otherwise) for charter schools within our communities. They are free to spend money without local transparency, to make decisions without community input, to counsel students with extra needs that they would be better off elsewhere,  to suspend eye-popping numbers of students...and then when they fail, to return all of those students to the public school system.

What is the goal, here, Madame Chairs?
If, as we are Constitutionally charged, it is “spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people,” the system you’ve created isn’t doing that. You’ve made it okay for some schools to pick their kids, throw out those that won’t work on data charts, and then be held up as unmitigated successes, while other schools teach all kids, and somehow fail by contrast.

We on the local level endeavor to educate every child, every day. We invite you to join us in this effort by passing this bill, and other reform bills before you today.

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