Editorial: Charters aren’t draining district school funding

This editorial originally appeared in the Boston Globe

FOR MONTHS, MASSACHUSETTS voters have been told that charter schools are draining money from traditional public schools, thereby threatening the education of non-charter students across the state. That’s the principal argument that charter opponents have offered in urging voters to defeat Question 2, which would allow 12 new charter schools or charter school expansions.

But a detailed new report by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation shows that the anti-charter argument just doesn’t pass muster. Summarizing its deep dive into public school funding, the foundation, widely regarded as an even-handed fiscal analyst, writes: “Examination of school funding trends in districts affected by charter school enrollments does not suggest that charter schools are over-funded, that students in district schools are suffering a loss of support, or that the per-student funding of districts is trending negatively. Rather, per-student funding has increased quite steadily across the state, and the district-charter balance has been stable.”

The study, which was funded by the Boston Foundation, notes that in fiscal year 2016, approximately 3.9 percent of public school students (about 36,000 Massachusetts students) were attending charters — and 3.9 percent of public school funds went to charter schools.

That, as the report notes, is in keeping with the state’s long-established educational philosophy: Educational dollars should follow the student. That’s the same philosophy that informs the state’s school-choice program, which allows a student from one district to attend a school in another and have his state and district dollars go to that school. And its regional vocational education program, in which a student’s state and district dollars go the regional institution rather than a district school. But in those programs, the sending district isn’t reimbursed any amount for the departing students, whereas with charters, there’s generous adjustment funding, including the payment of 100 percent of a student’s educational cost the first year after his or her departure. (In the tough fiscal times of the last several years, the reimbursement formula has not been fully funded.)

Since the last charter cap lift, in January 2010, three-quarters of the increase in charter school students has come in eight urban districts: Boston, Springfield, Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, Chelsea, Fall River, and New Bedford. At the time of the cap lift, the report notes, about 7.1 percent of students in those districts were in charters — and about 7 percent of total education spending was on charters. Now, about 11.4 percent of students in those communities go to charters, and 11.6 percent of total education spending is for charters. The slight differences are generally driven by the greater educational costs accorded to certain categories of students.

Non-charter spending per pupil is up by an average of 10.1 percent in those districts, charter per-pupil funding by 11.8 percent. Further, non-charter spending in those districts is up not just on a per pupil basis, but on an overall basis, over the last five budget years. Those increases range from 4.3 percent in Springfield to 17.9 percent in Boston, 19 percent in Lynn, 21.5 percent in Lawrence, and 29.7 percent in Chelsea.

The report comes to the same conclusion based on school funding statewide since the last charter-school cap lift, saying: “What is not evident from an examination of aggregate funding levels over time is any resulting systematic financial disadvantage to district school students in any type of community.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report will hardly end the debate over charters. The teachers unions remain vehemently opposed to more charters, which are not automatically union schools. But it should at least put to rest the notion that charter public schools are unfairly taking education dollars from the district schools.

The fiscal facts say that’s simply not so.