MTA president: Charter initiative would undermine public schools and communities

MTA President Barbara Madeloni says that a charter ballot initiative filed on Aug. 5 would “effectively obliterate any meaningful caps on charter schools and undermine our public schools and our communities.”

“This proposal is a strike against democracy, against teacher and parent input into the education of students, and against the principle that all students are entitled to a high-quality public education,” Madeloni said.

“This proposal is a strike against democracy.”

— MTA President Barbara Madeloni

The MTA is part of a coalition of students, parents, educators and other concerned community members that will fight the ballot question and any legislative proposals to lift the cap. The coalition seeks to protect and improve public education for all students, including the high-need students that most charters fail to serve; to maintain the mission of public education as foundational to democracy; and to preserve local control of public education.

The initiative petition, intended for the November 2016 ballot, purports to keep a cap on the number of charter schools, but in fact it creates a second pathway for opening new charters that “bypasses that cap and blows the lid off of any meaningful restrictions,” Madeloni noted.

“If this passes, then over time public schools in any given district — currently governed democratically by a local school committee — could be wiped out and turned over to private charter school operators,” Madeloni said. “This could be done based on votes by an appointed pro-charter Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over the strenuous objections of local residents and elected officials.

"This isn't just a theoretical concern," she continued. "We see charter schools being approved despite strong local opposition all the time, albeit on a smaller scale because of the current caps."

Madeloni said the ballot initiative would be "a further attack on the very concept of public education."

"As the NAACP has said, charters are creating ‘separate and unequal’ school systems by using selective enrollment practices to keep out English language learners and special education students and push out those who don’t meet restrictive academic and behavior requirements," she said. "Allowing unlimited charters at the expense of truly public schools would be a terrible retreat in a state that has the oldest continuously operating public school in the country and many of the best public schools in the world.”

Under current law, the number of Commonwealth charter schools is capped at 72. An additional 48 Horace Mann charters are allowed, but they are not at issue because they are, for the most part, approved by the school committees and local associations of the districts that have to pay for them.

Current law, which includes a partial cap lift adopted in 2010, limits how much of a district’s net school spending can be drained into the coffers of Commonwealth charter schools. That funding loss ranges from 9 percent to 18 percent, depending on a number of factors.

Both the spending cap and the cap on the number of new charter schools that could be approved would be effectively eliminated by the initiative, since it creates a second, much easier pathway for opening new charters.

It would allow the state to approve up to 12 new Commonwealth charter schools — or expand existing charter schools — each and every year, forever. In theory, this expansion could continue until no district public schools were left.

“The only restrictions would affect the pace at which our public schools could be privatized,” Madeloni said. “The pathway would be wide open for undoing public education in Massachusetts.”

Those 12 schools collectively could serve about 9,500 new students each year — 1 percent of total school enrollment — or about 190,000 students over 20 years. This could cost public school districts billions of dollars.

“Contrary to the way it is being portrayed, this is no modest tweak to the existing system,” Madeloni said. “If this initiative is passed, then over time there would be no total cap on the number of schools, no total cap on the number of students who could be enrolled and no limit to how much funding could be siphoned from the public schools to private charter school operators.

“What’s already happening to public education in Massachusetts would be greatly accelerated,” she added. “The public schools, which gladly embrace all students, would inevitably have fewer resources to serve a disproportionately high share of the highest-need students.”

Madeloni said the initiative is an attack on democracy, as well as on public schools.

“If this initiative is passed, then over time there would be no need for elected school committees in districts that are fully charterized,” she said. “Instead, the schools would be authorized by a small number of appointed members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and overseen by bureaucrats working at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“This should anger parents and other voters who want to have some say over how the public schools in their districts are operated, as they do now through local elections and other means,” Madeloni concluded.