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New York-based charter school advocacy group opens Boston office

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
New York-based charter school advocacy group opens Boston office
Families for Excellent Schools says 2,000 parents and students attended the group’s November rally in Faneuil Hall.

For its opening act, Families for Excellent Schools made a splash in Faneuil Hall last month. A crowd organizers estimated at 2,000 parents and students wearing light blue tee-shirts reading “77,000 reasons” stood opposite Boston City Hall with signs reading “great schools now,” demonstrating on behalf of school reform.

The tee-shirts referred to the number of students the group’s organizers say attend Massachusetts public schools where at least a third of the students are performing below grade level in math and/or reading. The signs, hand-lettered in blue and green, were lacking in specific demands, as were the speakers who stood on a stage in front of Faneuil Hall. Some signs simply read “believe.”

“We are 2,000 strong, united with one vision – to say that we believe in our children,” said Mattapan resident Stacey Marlow. “We believe our children deserve access to quality schools.”

While charter schools were barely mentioned during the rally, Families for Excellent Schools’ New York parent organization, which bears the same name, is widely seen as a pro-charter schools organization.

FES Massachusetts State Director Raiyan Syed would not say whether the Massachusetts chapter will advocate lifting the cap on new charter schools in Massachusetts.

“Parents don’t care what the school is called, what the name is,” he said. “They’re saying they want more quality schools in every neighborhood.”

While Syed and the speakers at the November rally repeated the group’s claim that they’re fighting for quality schools, no one from the Massachusetts chapter has advocated on behalf of a single policy position or articulated how to achieve excellence in schools.

Syed said the organization’s three organizers have had 250 one-on-one meetings with Boston parents to discuss their concerns.

“From the one-to-ones we’ve done with parents, what we’ve learned is that what’s most important to parents is high quality schools,” he said. “There are a lot of parents who feel that their children are trapped in low-quality schools. It’s a travesty that nothing is being done. We need transformational change.”

In New York, FES has spent millions of dollars through its political arm lobbying state government there on behalf of charter schools — lobbying against New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s attempts to regulate charter schools and pushing through a law requiring the city to pay rent for charters that are not located in city buildings.

It’s little wonder then, that education activists in Boston are bracing themselves for an onslaught of charter school advocacy.

“They aren’t talking about charter schools, but it’s clear that that’s what they’re about,” said Mary Battenfeld, a member of the group Quality Education for Every Student, a group of Boston school parents who earlier this year fought successfully against a push to lift the state’s cap on new charter schools.

“A New York group has come in because the Legislature, through its democratic process, voted not to lift the cap on charter schools,” Battenfeld said.

As is the case in many states, charter schools in Massachusetts receive funding from the school districts in which they operate. Although by law, the state is required to reimburse school districts for a portion of the funding lost to charter schools, the state has not consistently fully funded the reimbursements.

Meanwhile, state funding for public school education has been declining since the beginning of the last decade. In 2002, the state channeled more than $9 billion (in 2014 dollars) in Chapter 70 aid for cities’ and towns’ K-12 education. Then, state funding accounted for 31 percent of Boston’s school budget. In the current year, the state is spending $7.5 billion on Chapter 70 aid, which will account for only 11 percent of Boston’s school funding.

In the meantime, the cost of running schools has risen, with increased costs for heating oil and utilities, increased health care costs for employees and increased transportation costs. The Boston Public Schools began the 2014-2015 fiscal year with a $110 million budget deficit, which was plugged with reductions in staff, a phasing out of bus service for eighth-graders and other measures.

Over time, the loss of funding has taken its toll on Boston schools. Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, a Quality Education for Every Student member, says the Mary E. Curley K-8 school his children attend has lost $1.7 million in funding and cut 20 positions in recent years, while school enrollment has increased.

In the last legislative session, state Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz and Rep. Russell Holmes fought for a compromise on the doomed legislation to lift the cap on new charter schools, advocating for a mechanism that would tie charter school expansion to compliance with the state law reimbursing school districts for funds lost to charter schools. The measure did not pass.

Following the defeat of their push to lift the cap, charter school proponents said they were mulling a ballot initiative that would let voters decide whether to lift the cap on charter schools.

Berents-Weeramuni sees the ongoing efforts of charter school advocates like Families for Excellent Schools as an attempt to claim a larger share of the limited school funding resources, rather than advocating as Chang-Diaz did, for increased funding for all schools.

“Chapter 70 funding has gone through the floor,” he said. “It’s kind of like a kick in the teeth to parents when an out-of-state organization comes into Boston to advocate for charter schools. We have buildings that are falling down. Their agenda is to privatize schools.”