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Boston School Committee acts against charter cap lift

More charters harm city budget, committee says

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston School Committee acts against charter cap lift
A BCLA parent was among many to speak during public testimony. She said she is not against charter schools but against the financial impact charter expansion would have on district schools.

The Boston School Committee voted unanimously last week to pass a resolution against the ballot question to expand charter schools in Massachusetts.

BPS high school students turned out in support of keeping the cap on charter schools. Erik Lazo (left), a student at Snowden International, said during public testimony that his and other district schools already are underfunded.

Supporters of lifting the cap gathered before the meeting in the Bolling Building. At the base of the grand staircase, they distributed blue “Great Schools Massachusetts” T-shirts; upstairs, those against lifting the cap cracked open boxes of yellow “No on 2” T-shirts.

During testimony, many parents lamented the division the ballot question had created between them, acknowledging everyone’s desire to do best by their children and saying the dispute had diverted valuable time and energy from discussing important school matters.

Supporters on both sides advocated for the quality of their schools and presented opposing views of the impact of charter expansion on the Boston Public Schools budget.

Voting for the resolution, School Committee members declared charter expansion a threat not only to BPS finances, but to the entire municipal budget.

“Uncapped charter growth is bad for finances,” said School Committee member Michael Loconto. “[Expansion] doesn’t just affect schools —it means dirtier parks, streets that don’t get plowed as quickly in winter time. It means that police and fire calls maybe take a little longer getting answered.”

Several members emphasized that their vote was not a critique of overall charter school quality, with some saying that part of the dialogue has become misleading in how it frames the ballot question.

“You’d think by the rhetoric that the question before us was whether or not to abolish charters or abolish district schools,” Loconto said.

The budget dispute

The financial implications of charter expansion were highly contested, with BPS parents, students and alumni arguing that it would deplete district school resources and threaten the viability of BPS to serve its children. Given that BPS enrolls the majority of children, the impact would be hard felt by many, they said.

Several school committee members said they were influenced by the presentation given last meeting by Katie Hammer, city budget director, and Eleanor Laurans, BPS executive director of school finance, in which the budget officials said that under existing state laws, charter schools already create a financial burden for BPS and expansion would only exacerbate this. In part this effect is because when the city contributes extra per-pupil spending to address BPS’ significant population of high needs students, state law requires the city also to provide the same additional funding to charter students, who tend to have less costly needs, they said.

Orchard Gardens nurse Sue Burchill said already her budget is strained to an unsupportable level: she is given 33 cents per child, making basic supplies out of reach. (Her budget is equivalent to approximately 3.5 Halls cough drops per student — based on Walgreens price listing of 9 cents per drop.)

“I use popsicles for ice [packs],” she told the Banner.

Antonetta Brown, a pre-K teacher at the Curley said she has to pursue grants and ask parents for funding for supplies and field trips, as well as apply for grants for her son’s school, the Curtis Guild. The constant hunt for funds is draining, she said.

“As a teacher, I’ve seen how cuts affected my students. I always have to be in search for grants to improve some of the opportunities my kids have,” Brown said. “If this goes through, I’ll have to be doing that so much more.”

However, some in favor of charter expansion said BPS has enough money but simply needs to reconsider how it uses it.

KIPP parent Lawson pointed to it to a recent report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation that argues that district school finances currently are not harmed by charter schools.

MTF authors say that charter schools get only their fair share, with the percent of students attending charters in 2016 matching the percent of public school funding directed to charter schools.

According to Laurans and Hammer, BPS picks up some extra expenses such as transportation for charter students.

The MTF report says as well that, as the state is obligated to provide temporary transitional reimbursements to district schools, when children switch to charters this is a better financial situation for the district schools than if the student leaves for a different district school.

Reimbursements are meant to help district schools adjust when they retain the same numbers of teachers and building costs but lose per-pupil funding for a handful of students. In recent years, the state has not fully funded reimbursements. Loconto and School Committee Chair Michael O’Neill raised concern that the city has had to step in to supply charter reimbursements, meaning that, if charters expand, this expense will increase, drawing funding from the pool that supplies all municipal departments.

The opportunity question

Although School Committee members said their votes revolved around the question of finance, public testimony also focused on dispute over school quality and whether expansion of charter schools or more careful stewardship of BPS finances would provide more students with more opportunities.

Some charter parents said those schools served their children in ways district schools failed to, and that lifting the cap could bring new charter high schools, allowing children to continue in environments that were successful for them.

“This [resolution] wants to put something down that is working. … Do not knock this opportunity down,” said one parent, who said she has a child doing well in a charter elementary school and another whom she feels is trapped in a level 3 district school.

KIPP Academy charter parent Daphne Lawson told the Banner prior to the meeting that she would rather move to another state than send her children to BPS.

“Either I’ll pay for them to go to private school or we’ll move back to Wisconsin, if they don’t test into one of the exam schools. Under no circumstances are they going to a BPS high school,” she told the Banner. She said her daughter, who has a learning disability, leapt ahead in reading and math during her first five months at KIPP.

Meanwhile, opponents of charter expansion countered that charter schools do not always provide well for those with special needs and said charter schools already could serve more students under the cap if they filled vacant seats mid-year, as BPS does.

“I wouldn’t have graduated if it weren’t for the program I was in — PATH — for emotionally fragile students,” said Tabitha Kast-McBride, a BPS graduate with social anxiety and depression, who credited her graduation and life to the emotional support program she received. “I haven’t heard of a charter school for students like me.”