In this series of posts, I’ve already discussed my concern with the ballot question itself and with charter schools’ lottery system. In this post, I’m hoping to show what I know about the economic issues around funding charter schools. In particular, I’ll be discussing “per-pupil funding” and “the reimbursement” from the state that’s offered to schools when a student chooses to attend a charter school
Massachusetts state govt and DESE firmly believe that “the money should follow the student” to where he/she is being educated. This editorial / article ? from The Boston Globe actually rests on the case that the percentage of money going to charters is equal to the percentage of students going to charters. It sadly leaves out, though, the truth that not all students cost the same to educate. Please read on.
A district’s total spending gets divided by the number of students it’s educating, and a “per-pupil average” is calculated. Essentially, this is the amount that the district will send to charter schools for each of its students attending the charter. At its core, this seems to make sense, but there are a number of overwhelming issues with the logic that make this funding model both inappropriate and unsustainable for district schools.
1) Schools make financial ends meet because everyone pays into them, including people who don’t have children, people who send their children to private schools, and people whose children have graduated. Each family’s taxes go towards not only paying the actual costs of educating their own child, but also the cost of running the school, operating the school, having exploratory/elective classes such as art, music, PE, STEM, and theater, and subsidizing supports for those students who need services that cost what can often become way more than the per-pupil average.
2) As I explained in this previous post, not all students have the same needs and cost the same and a large percentage of students who need extra services don’t attend charter schools. Think about students in life-skills programs or those who need nursing care throughout the day for toileting, feeding, mobility, etc; they just don’t go to non-traditional public schools. I know in Malden, there may be students in the charters with IEPs, but these charters just don’t have programs to support the high-needs students we have in our true public schools. The charter in Newburyport actually has none of the area’s “high needs” students, as identified by DESE (see these charts).
3) When a general education student or a student with a mild-needs IEP leaves a school for a charter, very little money - if any - is saved by the school, meaning that sending his/her per-pupil valuation become a net loss to the school. The school still has to pay bills, run a cafeteria, staff offices, hire and support exploratory teachers, subsidize or fully pay for busing costs and more. If a few students leave, the overall costs - aside from things like workbooks, science lab supplies and other nominal fees - stay the same, meaning that the remaining students will be expected to either pay more per student or live without an increasing amount of services. In fact, because salaries and utilities continue to increase, per-pupil costs rise because each year is more expensive than the last and because there are more students who leave for charters.
One claim that is heavily marketed by question 2 supporters is that “having charter schools increases funding for public schools.” What they’re referring to is the state reimbursement that is part of MA’s charter law. The state has promised, as seen in the chart below from this page from DESE, to send 100% of the first year costs of each student and then 25% of the costs every year for the five years after that to a sending district. This issue has a simple, practical problem in that - as is explained here by the Mass Budget and Policy Center - it isn’t actually funded. It’s also taken on a political life of it’s own:
Both the chart from DESE, below, and a related explanation from a newsletter sent out by Newburyport’s River Valley Charter School, charter proponents continue to tell people that districts are getting a “225% reimbursement.” This would be useful, but percentages don’t accumulate, so what they’re rhetoric leaves out is that districts are supposed to get 225% of year one’s tuition loss over the course of six years. What the rhetoric would have people believe is a profit base for districts is really 225 out of 600% that the district pays out.
Ultimately, the education costs more (district layout + state reimbursement) than it would without charter schools, and the districts end up with less.
My recap here?
1) I hope this post helps people see why I believe the economics of charter schools aren’t working.
2) This ought to be another reminder that this issue is - I believe - far too complex an important to be left up to a ballot question. There are too many factors left up in the air to expand I program that I'm worried about already.