Charter Schools

Q. What are Commonwealth charter schools?

A. Commonwealth charter schools are privately run, publicly funded schools with no local oversight. They are funded by diverting dollars from local school districts.

The 69 Commonwealth charter schools operating in Massachusetts in FY17 educate less than 4 percent of Massachusetts public school pupils — about 37,000 students — and they are projected to divert more than $450 million from public school districts this year.

Q. How do charter schools take money from public schools?

A. For every student who chooses to attend a charter school, the local district has to pay the charter school a tuition rate based on the characteristics of the specific students attending the school from that district. The money for that tuition comes from the district’s Chapter 70 state education aid and reflects a loss to the district of both state aid and local property tax resources.

Example: If the tuition cost is $14,000 in a district whose school budget is funded 50 percent by the state and 50 percent by local property taxes, the district will have to pay the charter school the $7,000 it receives from the state for that student as well as an additional $7,000 from local property taxes.

This system costs school districts much more in tuition payments than it saves them from having to educate fewer students. Students typically enroll in charters from different classrooms across a district. As a result, the cost of operating a community’s entire school system is essentially unchanged. Neighborhood schools are left with less money to cover the same operating expenses, such as maintenance, utilities and transportation costs. To put it another way, when a student leaves a classroom to go to a charter school, the district doesn’t save money because it can’t lay off 1/25th of a teacher.

In cities and towns such as Boston, Holyoke, Randolph, New Bedford, Gardner and Lynn, charter schools can already take as much as 18 percent of a school district’s budget. The loss of funds can lead to larger class sizes and the elimination of classes — such as music, art, technology and foreign language courses.

Q. What is the long-term impact of this loss of funds?

A. It can be quite negative. Loss of funds is the main reason that 215 school committees across Massachusetts voted to oppose Question 2, the November 2016 ballot initiative to lift the cap on charter schools. Not a single school committee voted to support it. The public agreed, voting against Question 2 62 to 38 percent.

Credit rating agencies also agree. Both Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings have warned that expanding charter schools could hurt a municipality’s credit rating, increasing the cost of borrowing and potentially forcing a district to cut services or raise taxes.

Q. There are no charter schools in my community, so how does this affect me?

A. Even if there are no charter schools currently operating in your city or town, your school district may already be losing money.

Example: Even though there are no charter schools operating in Northampton, the city is losing $2.3 million to pay tuition for 202 students enrolled in five charters located in nearby cities and towns this year.

Q. Are charter schools private or public?

A. That depends on your definition. They are publicly funded but privately operated. Charter schools must adopt the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks, and their students must take state-mandated standardized tests, but charter schools are exempt from many other state and district laws and regulations, including the requirement that they hire licensed teachers. They are governed by private boards of trustees and are not accountable to the local communities whose students they enroll.

According to a study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, more than 60 percent of charter schools in Massachusetts have no parent representatives on their boards. As a result, the dominant voices on charter school governing boards in Massachusetts are from the financial and corporate sectors. In addition, the state often approves charter schools even when the communities in which they will be located are strongly opposed to them.

Example: In February 2016, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the New Heights Charter School in Brockton even though every single elected official in Brockton opposed the school, as did the vast majority of the residents attending public hearings on the school. The opponents argued that Brockton did not need the school, did not want it and could not afford it.

Once a charter school is opened, the local school committee has no oversight over it and cannot intervene if the charter school’s practices — such as suspending high numbers of students — are disruptive to the local community.

Q. Does the MTA object to all forms of charter schools?

A. No. Although each school has to be considered on its merits, the MTA has historically supported Horace Mann Charter Schools as long as they are welcomed by the community and as long as compensation and working conditions for staff are bargained in good faith. The MTA has also supported other schools of choice, such as Innovation Schools and Pilot schools, which are similar to Horace Mann Charter Schools. None of these schools drain funds from the district schools, and all are governed locally and are required to meet the same standards of financial integrity and transparency as other public services.

Q. But aren’t vocational/technical schools like charter schools?

A. No. Vocational/technical schools are true public schools governed by school committees composed of representatives from the communities served. Municipalities that pay to send students to regional voke/tech schools do so voluntarily because they provide a service that they value and that is not cost-effective for every single district to provide.

Q. Do charter schools serve the same students as traditional public schools?

A. No. Charter schools create a two-track system described by the NAACP as “separate and unequal.” Even though charter schools are required by law to educate high-need students, most charter schools fail to enroll as many English language learners, special needs students or economically disadvantaged students as their sending districts.

Example: Below is a chart showing the discrepancy between the percentage of ELL students served by the public schools in our state’s three largest districts and in the charter schools located in those communities.

Location of Charter SchoolsNo. Of Charter SchoolsCharter EnrollDistrict ELL%Charter Schools ELL%
Boston 19 8,201 29.8 12.4
Springfield 4 2,186 17.2 4.0
Worcester 2 2,095 35.1 11.7
Some charter schools also push out students they don’t want to serve through a variety of methods, including extreme discipline and high suspension rates, allowing them to boost their test scores.

Example: Roxbury Prep Charter School in Boston suspended 40 percent of its students in 2014-15 compared to less than 5 percent in the Boston Public Schools. National and state studies have shown this is not an anomaly, but a well-documented trend.

Q. Do charter schools have long waitlists?

A. Some charter schools, as well as many neighborhood public schools, have waitlists. Some do not. In Boston, for example, there are thousands of students on waitlists for their first-choice schools in the Boston Public Schools.

Charter school promoters make vastly exaggerated claims about the number of students on their waitlists because they want to lift the current cap and spread more charter schools. State Auditor Suzanne Bump has been highly critical of state waitlist data. One analysis of state data suggests the number of students on charter waitlists could be less than 15,000.

Many students who apply to charter schools choose not to attend when they are offered seats. A 2013 study conducted for the pro-charter Boston Foundation found that 47 percent of Boston students who were offered seats in charter school lotteries turned them down.

Charter schools also lose many students throughout the school year. Suspension rates for charter schools are among the highest in the state. Charters often refuse to take in new students to fill these slots despite claims that they have long waitlists.

And here’s another important point. The high cost of charter schools makes it that much harder to fund education services that are in high demand for all students. Today there are nearly 15,000 children on waitlists for quality, affordable preschool programs. Early childhood education is an essential component to future success in school and in life. We should be opening access to vital programs like these instead of diverting even more money to charter schools for the select few.

Q. Do charter school students have higher test scores than public school students?

A. That depends. Just as with traditional public schools, charter school students’ test scores vary — some are high, some moderate and some low. National studies consistently show that charter schools perform about the same as public schools despite having several advantages — such as serving fewer high-need students and receiving a lot of money from wealthy charter school supporters and foundations.

In Massachusetts, there are several charter schools where students do attain high MCAS scores. These schools typically have an intense focus on test preparation and zero-tolerance discipline policies that push out lower-performing students.

By the same token, many charter schools do not do well. A high percentage of charter schools in Massachusetts never even get off the ground after being approved, or they flounder once they are opened. To date, 21 Commonwealth charters that were approved by the state since 1994 either never opened or closed due poor performance or for other reasons. Ten of the 69 existing charter schools — 14 percent — are operating “under conditions or on probation” for poor student performance or governance problems. In short, just being a charter school is no guarantee that students will get high test scores — let alone receive a well-rounded, quality education that prepares them for life, college or work after high school.

Q. But don’t students in our urban areas need charter schools?

A. No. Students in our urban areas need high-quality, adequately funded public schools. Massachusetts is a pioneer in education and our schools have led the nation since long before the concept of charter schools even existed. Today, charter schools are creating divisions in communities rather than uniting families to work together for great public schools for all. Expanding a two-track system of schools is not consistent with our values in Massachusetts. It promotes private interests over the common good.

Charter schools can actually limit families’ choices. For example, when a district school closes because some families have chosen charter schools, the families who want their children to go to the district school lose their choice. We need to strengthen our public schools so that we can provide a quality public education to all students, no matter their race, their family’s income or their level of need.