Monday, October 17, 2016

You support your charter school. Here's why you should vote no on question 2.

You teach at a charter school.
You send your kids to a charter school.
Or you have.
Or you have a family member or neighbor who does.
So why would you vote against expanding them?

I mean this entirely sincerely: it is great that things are going well, no matter where you educate your kids. Sending kids off to other people for hours a day is a huge matter of trust, and any time kids are being cared for, being well taught, being pushed to do better, being supported, that's a good thing.

Also, like lots of other people in public education, I have friends and relatives who teach or have taught in charter schools, friends who send their kids to charter schools. This is no more a hypothetical than much else in and around public education is to me.

And here's why, when we talk about this, I recommend that they vote no on 2, over and above the reasons regarding the 96% of kids in Massachusetts who aren't in charter schools.

First, do get straight for yourself if this in any way impacts your own child's school. Very, very few districts are anywhere near their charter caps. Here's last spring's "near cap" list; since then, only Springfield and Brockton got new schools, and Everett and Boston got additional seats. If you're being told that this impacts your own child, please do check out the above and see if that is the case. In most cases, it is not.

The reputation of charter schools in Massachusetts, mixed as it is, is closely tied to the state oversight of charter operators. Massachusetts is unusual, in that all charter authorization comes from the state (in other states, there may be a mix of authorizers). All that you heard in response to John Oliver's takedown of charter schools was tied to state oversight: the state only authorizes "proven providers;" the state closes underperforming schools; the state has strict requirements for reauthorization.
As it happens, I'd take issue with all of those statements to one degree or another, but to the extent they're true, that's as a result of DESE oversight. DESE has a yearly budget of just over $4M, which sounds like a lot of money until you realize that there are school districts that spend more than that a year on administration. DESE's staffing recently has been substantially cut, partly due to the current administration, partly due to the loss of Race to the Top funds. This isn't something that has gotten a lot of news coverage--after all, who cares that a state bureaucracy has gotten smaller?--but if you're close to school administrations (charter or district), you've probably heard some murmurings of concern. It's taking longer to get responses; they're not seeing as much on the ground contact; it's becoming more and more clear that they're strapped for staff. (And to my DESE readers: they're not complaining; they're worried.)
Since the only real legal oversight charter schools have in Massachusetts comes through the Board of Education, as reported by DESE staff, that should worry us. If something happens in a district school, and the administration either doesn't know, doesn't care, or willfully ignores it, if all else fails, you can show up at a school committee meeting--meeting in your district, at a publicly posted time and place, in a context in which some form of public comment is on the agenda--and tell them your concern. If a parallel situation happens at a charter school, your only recourse is the Board of Education--meeting on a Tuesday morning, in Malden, and allowing public comment only if you've known to sign up in advance. If your school committee doesn't hear you, you can work to get them out of office. If the Board of Education doesn't hear you, they'll be keeping their seats, anyway, as they're appointed by the Governor on a five year cycle.
This isn't hypothetical to me. Back in May of 2011, a number of Spirit of Knowledge parents applied to then-Mayor O'Brien, who brought in a few of us from the Worcester School Committee, for help in their not being heard by their administration regarding problems there. Having no other recourse, I took their issues to the Board of Ed. I wasn't heard, I would say, any better than the parents were, though some of those issues were the same ones that ultimately closed the school.
I know there are parents whose children are in charter schools because they didn't feel heard by their district schools. Most often, interestingly, I hear this in Boston, which doesn't have an elected school committee.
We're already skating on the edge in terms of oversight of charter schools in Massachusetts. Vastly expanding the vetting, the review, the voting, and then the oversight, with no plan for expanded staffing of the state, is incredibly irresponsible, and it puts at risk any success we are having with such oversight currently.

Okay, maybe your school is fine and you're sure it will always be fine.

Charters are funded from state education (Ch.70) funds for both state and city side of funding. Charters receive the same proportion over minimum funding that district schools do, but the funding all comes from state aid. This necessarily cushions charters from midyear budget adjustments at the municipal level and to some degree from the state level.
There is, though, no financial plan for this ballot question. While advocates can push "money follows the child" narrative, there are two places where there unquestioningly is an increase in state revenue needed with any new charter: facilities funding (which charter schools get over and above per pupil funding) and district reimbursement. Reimbursement has allowed the Legislature to feel that they are to some degree "smoothing out" transfers--the degree to which this isn't happening is here--but facilities funding is outside and above that. With no budget planning for either of these items, where is the funding going to be found for these? The state, after all, has only so much money to go around.
My previous post on funding spoke of the impact on districts that rely primarily on state funding for their budgets. But charter schools rely SOLELY on state funding for their budgets*. Any hit to state education aid will hit charter schools.
And charter schools aren't any less impacted than district schools from the consequences of health insurance not being in line with actual costs. The same tensions surrounding the foundation budget for districts also (to whatever extent their enrollment is reflective) impacts charter schools. Thus charter budgets are also already short by their respective foundation calculations.
And that's what we should be working on, not this ballot question.

I would also point you to Mary Pierce's excellent post on special education. At ground, this is a social justice issue, which is why the NAACP over the weekend called for a national moratorium on charter school expansion. All of our kids deserve an excellent education. 
*with the exception of funding they may receive privately. 

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