Friday, October 28, 2016

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - The Economics

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  

Per-Pupil Funding

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.  

The Reimbursement:

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.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - Problems With the Lottery System

This is the second installment of a series of posts I’m writing about ballot question number 2 in Massachusetts this fall, which allows voters to decide whether or not to allow the state to both open more charter schools and/or more seats in existing charter schools.   Clicking this link will bring you to the first piece, which covers my issue with the question itself and with the issue being decided by a citizens’ vote. The highlights are that:

  1. If charters are needed or considered to be serving an important and desired need in a community, this should be a community vote, not a state-wide ballot.
  2. This issue has a lot of nuance to it, and I don’t believe most voters will understand what the details are to the point where they are voting as informed citizens instead of emotionally reacting to an idea.
  3. This may be a different discussion if the economics of it weren’t so unsustainable, and I’m worried that people are going to vote about charters, philosophically, instead of recognizing the economic issues involved.

Charter school advocates refer to charters as “public charter schools,” believing that they’re public because they are funded by public tax dollars and because they admit students from the community via lottery systems.  I’m going to get into the issue of charter funding in a separate piece, so I’m skipping it for now.

There are rumors about charter schools fixing their lottery systems, only inviting certain people to ever apply into their lottery systems and canvassing certain neighborhoods to try to stack their lottery involvement.  Truthfully, I haven’t seen any of that.  I also haven’t heard of that in Massachusetts, so I’m not going to give it any legs here.  

- I will only define a public school as one that accepts full responsibility for the education of any and all student-aged citizens of a community.  I refer to them as “true public schools” because their are no barriers to their being enrolled, and they will stay enrolled until they graduate, regardless of the struggles.  I don’t know if there are charters in MA who try to avoid having certain students and/or rig their lottery systems to ensure that that happens, but I do absolutely know that the overwhelming majority of our neediest public school students just don’t apply.

  • I personally know students who have been pushed out of charter schools for academic, behavioral, and attendance issues as well as people who have been told that their charter couldn’t meet their child(ren)’s special education needs.

  • There is a two-way problem here. It’s not only that charters ending up with a huge majority of “high-capacity families” (those who can navigate systems and support any unserved needs) but also that this is leaving the public schools with a lighter advocacy pool (those families that have the time, ability, and confidence to fight for their students’ needs), a topic I’ll get more into in another post.

- Students whose parents don’t understand what a charter school is don’t apply.  Charter advocates say that anyone is welcome to apply, but I’ve worked with a lot of families who struggle to understand how to navigate the logistics of their neighborhood school and how important some basics are, like getting to school on time and communicating with teachers and the front office.  These families are always going to be in the true public schools because they just don’t have the time and wherewithal to apply for anything else. They expect their neighborhood school to support their children.  

- Students whose parents don’t know whether or not the school can handle their child(s) special education needs don’t apply.  I know special education isn’t always a perfect system, but parents of high-needs special education students (think: autistic students, those with 1:1 paraprofessionals, those with needs for nursing care, those with extreme mental and/or social-emotional needs) are not considering charter schools.  If they are doing so somewhere that I’m not aware of, that’s great; it’s not the norm, though.

- There are many charters that accept students from behind their host community.  From those areas, only families who can provide transportation to and from school are enrolling in the charters.  This is an obvious divide on a socio/economic level and on a logistical capacity level.    

- Because families often have to apply to school lotteries by a certain date, anyone moving into a district beyond that date (as early as January/February) has a better chance of being excluded.  They would not only need to know they’re moving into an area in time to apply, but also need to be able and willing to do the research and potentially apply without talking to anyone who’s gone to that charter.  It’s not always so, but transient children - and their families - are often at higher academic and social/emotional risk.  Moving is traumatic under the best of circumstances, so when it’s caused by unexpected divorce, job loss, home foreclosures, family death, child relocation, family homelessness, etc., families are coming to the true public schools at all times during the year with high needs.

- While there are some charters with some ELL (English Language Learner) students, families with limited English proficiency, especially those who move from another country, are not applying into charter schools.

- Students with parents/families who aren’t able, willing, or generally inclined to be heavily involved in schooling aren’t going to get into the lottery.  There are rumors out there of charter schools that mandate parents pay fees and sign up for volunteer hours.  I don’t know if that’s true.  What I do know is that there are a lot of parents who don’t keep their phone numbers up to date, don’t make it to conferences, miss established teacher meetings, don’t come for teacher conferences, aren’t at home doing homework with their kids, and/or who just don’t trust public institutions like schools and police.  Sometimes these families don’t want to come in and don’t bother to come in.  Other times, they are kept from coming in by a wide variety of reasons like the hours they work and/or the family members they take care of.    Not all PTO meetings and band concerts are fully attended.  Not all family are going to apply to charter schools.  

The major question with this ballot question is this:  Do you want an industry that rests on so many uncertainties - like those here and those about school economics that I’ll cover in future posts - to expand at all, much less without any reflection and improvements to the system?  Here is a link to Newburyport’s resolution against the ballot question, in which you can read about a number of common sense upgrades to the charter model in Massachusetts.  
I hope this brief overview help you to understand that the issue around charter schools’ lotteries system absolutely doesn’t boil down to everyone equitably have a chance to attend charters and accepting that chance.

As always, I am in interested in the conversation and welcome your feedback. By the way, in case you don't believe me, here are a few "accountability charts" from DESE. They show the Performance Rating for the River Valley Charter School and a number of its sending towns. This is just one small example of how a regional charter school has NONE of the "high needs" students from its home district and/or its sending districts. Even I thought they'd have some students who fit into at least one of the categories. Many people will just see "Level 1" vs "Level 2," though. My question is about how setting up this regional charter is going to help these districts' neediest students.

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - The Question Itself

In November, because our state government has abdicated its responsibility to research and make a decision about the expansion of the already troubling charter-school program in Massachusetts, the citizens of the Commonwealth are going to be voting on ballot question #2, whether or not to allow an increased number of new charter schools and additional seats in existing charter schools.   We live in a Republic - a representative democracy - for a reason, most notably because of the difficulty citizens have doing the research and objectively understanding issues.   

I want to explain how charter schools are adding to the devaluing of our public schools and why it’s important to not just vote against the expansion ballot, but also to dramatically improve, and potentially even reverse the systems within which Massachusetts charter schools exist.  I speak not only with the emotions of a parent and public-school advocate, but also as a professional educator of 18 years and a current school-committee member.  I work and live in towns being negatively affected - economically and politically - by charter schools.  

Even though I am against this legislation, I want to be clear that I hold no malice against people who work in charter schools or send their children to them.  I know some very talented educators who teach in and run charter schools.  I have friends and relatives who send(t) their child(ren) to charter school(s).  I also don’t at all kid myself and think that public district schools and our systems don’t have a lot of room to improve.  

For clarity’s sake, I’m planning on releasing a few separate blog posts on this topic.  I need to write about the legislation itself to start.  Then I will write about its lottery admittance system and why charters are absolutely not serving a representative cross section of our student population.  This series will also discuss how and why this inadequate admission strategy divides communities.  Another post will discuss the economics.  

About the question:

  1. “Charter School” means so many things to so many districts.  There are different approaches, different charters, different levels of success, different locations (local and regional), and other differences that make a discussion about charter schools as a whole a dangerous proposition.  They were designed to support local school districts - to be labs of innovation, strategy sharing, and improvement - and should therefore be approved only - if at all - by local communities.  A statewide ballot means that people who have no knowledge of how they work or connection to them at all will be voting on something that has big consequences for other places.   

  1. While I don’t doubt that there are some people who will spend the time to fully investigate and understand the issue at hand, I wonder if you feel that enough people:
    1. Know why charter advocates and opponents disagree on whether or not charter schools are public schools.
    2. Know how per-pupil spending formulas work and why opponents don’t think they tell the whole story
    3. Know how charters are paid and the percentage formula the state uses to reimburse the sending districts.  
    4. Know the philosophical foundations for establishing charter schools in Massachusetts
    5. Understand the processes required to apply into different charters’ lotteries.  
    6. Actually know who attends charter schools.  Advocates and opponents disagree on whether or not charters actually serve a representative sample of all student demographics (race, special education needs, English Language Learner needs, socio-economic status, homeless, etc).

  1. Even the name of the question “An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools” ought to give people pause.  The propaganda in it is implying that access to charters isn’t “fair,” which is actually one of charter opponents arguments.  What this questions seeks to do is to allow “increased” access to charter schools.  In my future posts (coming soon), I will deconstruct why the words “fair” and “public” in this question are so controversial.

Without even reading any more, I hope I've helped you to understand why this process and this ballot are troubling.  My other posts will come soon.  As always, I welcome and look forward to your comments and feedback.