Save Our Public Schools coalition fights effort to lift cap on charters

Franklin Education Association President Donna Grady spoke during the launch of the Save Our Public Schools campaign on March 16. Worcester City Councilor Khrystian E. King, center, and Marlena Rose, coordinator for the Boston Education Justice Alliance, at right in the front row, also addressed the crowd. Franklin Education Association President Donna Grady spoke during the launch of the Save Our Public Schools campaign on March 16. Worcester City Councilor Khrystian E. King, center, and Marlena Rose, coordinator for the Boston Education Justice Alliance, at right in the front row, also addressed the crowd.

Retired Chicopee teacher Diane Jensen- Olszewski is deeply concerned about the impact of charter schools on early education and other services in districts such as hers.

Chicopee is losing more than $1.7 million to charters this year.

"I think about how a lot of communities don’t have full-day kindergarten, so parents have to pay for the other half of the day," Jensen-Olszewski said during an interview at a recent MTA event. "Schools lose programs. They lose wraparound services. If we had more money staying in the public school system, we could give all kids a really good start."

Jensen-Olszewski captured why a growing number of parents, educators and other residents of communities across Massachusetts are pushing back against the latest attempts to greatly expand the number of privately run, publicly funded charter schools that are not accountable to the local taxpayers who are required to pay for them.

Seeking to lift the cap, the pro-charter forces have filed a lawsuit, are pushing legislation and have collected signatures for a ballot initiative. It is likely the issue will be resolved at the ballot box in November.

Charters are already draining more than $400 million from public schools this year, and lifting the cap would cause that number to skyrocket.

The MTA has joined the Save Our Public Schools campaign, a coalition of education, parent and community groups fighting the ballot initiative. If passed, the measure could eventually lead to the loss of billions of dollars in public school funding to charters, along with thousands of public school educators’ jobs. The initiative would:

n Allow the state to approve 12 new charter schools, enrolling up to 1 percent of the school-age population, every year forever. If fully implemented, that would mean 9,500 students could move from public to charter schools each year, leading to the annual loss of an estimated 700 unionized public school jobs.

n Eliminate current limits on how much money any one school district could lose to charter schools. Entire districts could be turned over to charter operators in a single year.

Even Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a charter school supporter, said of the ballot question, "It would wreak havoc on municipal finances, undermining our ability to support either new or existing schools in Boston."

Walsh has good reason to be concerned. Moody’s Investors Service noted in 2013: "Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs. As some of these districts trim costs to balance out declining revenues, cuts in programs and services will further drive students to seek alternative institutions, including charter schools."

It’s a downward spiral that the charter industry promotes by frequently referring to "failing" public schools. The Save Our Public Schools campaign is thus not only fighting the cap lift, but also the pernicious narrative that schools run by private, corporate-style boards and staffed by employees at will who don’t have to be licensed are better able to serve the interests of low-income children than are public schools.

Shrewsbury Paraprofessional Association members were among those showing their solidarity with the Save Our Public Schools campaign at MTA’s recent ESP Conference. In the top row, from left to right, are Janet Johnson, Marion Crouch and Diane Dixon. In the bottom row, from left to right, are Susan Jennings, Doreen Kelly and Barbara Fink. Signs and stickers promoting the campaign are beginning to circulate around the state. Shrewsbury Paraprofessional Association members were among those showing their solidarity with the Save Our Public Schools campaign at MTA’s recent ESP Conference. In the top row, from left to right, are Janet Johnson, Marion Crouch and Diane Dixon. In the bottom row, from left to right, are Susan Jennings, Doreen Kelly and Barbara Fink. Signs and stickers promoting the campaign are beginning to circulate around the state.

Paid for by communities

The debate in Massachusetts centers on Commonwealth charter schools, the type of charters approved and overseen by the state but paid for by the communities whose students attend them. They operate free of many state and school district regulations, and their employees do not have rights and benefits under the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

In 1993, the first 25 Commonwealth charters were allowed under the omnibus Education Reform Act. Their primary purpose was to be laboratories of innovation. Four years later, the cap was raised to 37. Three years after that, it climbed to 72.

In 2010, the Legislature passed another expansion bill: Charter schools opened in the lowest-performing districts don’t count against the cap of 72, and the amount of funding those districts can lose to charters was raised from 9 percent to 18 percent of district spending.

Just six years later, the charter industry is back again, demanding yet another "compromise" — essentially seeking no effective cap.

The members of the Save Our Public Schools campaign have said "enough."

"Any cap lift portends the destabilization of public education in a profound way," said MTA President Barbara Madeloni. "Charters are parallel school systems, using public funds for private interests. Public education is about every child — not a few. For the charter industry, ‘compromise’ means forcing us to agree to divert even more funds from our public schools by threatening to take the issue to the ballot. This year, we and our allies are saying, ‘We are done compromising. Let the voters decide.’ We think the voters, once educated, will be outraged by what charters are doing to public education in Massachusetts."

Although charter schools currently enroll only about 4 percent of students statewide, their impact on cash-strapped districts can be substantial.

"Our public schools are being starved of resources, and the expanding charter schools will leave us with less and less funding to improve education for all our students," said Donna Grady, a kindergarten teacher and president of the Franklin Education Association who spoke at the Save Our Public Schools campaign kickoff event on March 16. Franklin is losing $4 million to charter schools this year.

In a letter to her state senator, Grady said that her district could use those funds to restore the librarians and paraprofessionals who have been cut and reduce class sizes, which exceed 30 students in some instances at the high school.

Even in communities not yet hit hard by charter schools, the threat is real.

"We can hardly afford to repair our own school buildings in Arlington," Maureen Crewe, the mother of four public school graduates, said during a community forum on March 23 that was organized by the MTA and Citizens for Public Schools. "Why should we lose money to charter schools?

"It’s very divisive to have two school systems going at once," Crewe added.

In a recent report, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that charter governance is modeled on private rather than public institutions, with 60 percent of the charter schools in Massachusetts lacking even a single parent on their boards of trustees.

In defending this practice, Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, told The Boston Globe that some charters are concerned that parents may have "conflicts of interest" if their own children attend the schools. By contrast, having children in local public schools is seen as an asset — not a conflict of interest — for elected school committee members.

The loss of local control is particularly galling in Massachusetts, a state with a long and proud history of excellent public schools. The state often approves locating charter schools in communities over the objections of a majority of the local residents and elected officials.

Brockton is a case in point. Every School Committee member and city councilor, along with the entire legislative delegation, opposed a proposed charter school earlier this year. Hundreds of parents and educators came to a local public hearing, with opponents greatly outnumbering supporters. Nonetheless, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in February to approve the charter school, which means taxpayers in Brockton and nearby communities will have to foot the bill at the expense of their own public schools.

"This is an outrageous undermining of democracy," Madeloni said. "We have town meeting members who painstakingly debate and vote on every line item in their local budgets because they care deeply about the services their tax dollars are paying for. And yet the state can just come in and say, in effect, ‘We don’t care if this forces you to close one of your local schools. We are approving a charter school for your community whether you want it or not.’"

A related problem is that charters do not serve all students. Unlike public schools, they are allowed to use enrollment strategies that enable them to serve fewer high-need students than their sending districts. One common practice is to suspend challenging students repeatedly for minor infractions until frustrated parents transfer them to a district public school.

Any legislation that would raise the cap would "subject thousands more children, and their parents, to a system that purposely shames, blames and pushes out children," said Marlena Rose, a Boston parent who spoke at the campaign kickoff event.

The result of all this? Public schools have fewer resources to educate a higher-need population. Those resources are already stretched thin. The bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission recently found that public schools are already underfunded by $1 billion a year.

Grassroots campaign underway

MTA members are critical players in the grassroots campaign that is now underway — first to stop a cap lift in the Legislature and then to defeat the ballot question.

Informing the public is essential. While many voters are initially inclined to support expanding the number of charters, a large percentage change their minds when they learn that these schools take away millions of dollars from local public schools and are not accountable to the communities that pay for them.

Among other activities, MTA members may be asked to contact their legislators again, urge their school committees to pass resolutions, explain the issue to local parent and civic organizations, send letters to their local newspapers and promote the pro-public-schools message through face-to-face conversations and social media.

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and chair of the Save Our Public Schools campaign, disagrees with those who think they should support charters to help low-income minority students in other communities. He believes the best way forward lies in supporting the public schools that serve all students.

Speaking at the campaign kickoff event in March, Cofield concluded, "Allowing additional charter school growth every year, without any end, will result in significant and irreparable harm to our public schools and the students who rely on them."