MTA backs campaign to fight charter cap lift

The MTA is committing resources to fight any proposals to lift the cap on charter schools and to support strong, well-funded, democratically controlled district public schools for all students.

The efforts will involve intensive opposition to any legislation that would expand Commonwealth charter schools as well as to a planned ballot initiative.

The association is fighting the cap lift as part of a coalition called the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance. The alliance includes educator, parent, student, labor and social justice organizations that are working together to support the schools that students, educators and communities deserve.

“The very possibility of quality public schools for all is under threat on multiple fronts,” said MTA President Barbara Madeloni. “We are fighting for our students, for our rights and for the future of public education.

“Public funds should go to schools that are staffed by educators who have a voice in policy through their union — and who are able to speak out on behalf of their working conditions and their students’ learning conditions,” she added. “They must not be further diverted from local community control to private interests that are seeking to enlarge a two-track system that undermines public education and the common good.”

Reasons to oppose lifting the cap

LOST FUNDING: Charter schools siphon hundreds of millions of dollars a year from public schools. This year alone, Commonwealth charters will divert more than $408 million from district public schools after reimbursements are taken into account. This means larger class sizes and less enrichment for students in district public schools.

NO LOCAL CONTROL: Charter schools are not accountable to their local communities. They are approved by the state, often over the objections of a large majority of local residents — the people who have to pay for them. Local school committees have no authority over these charter schools and no recourse if a charter school’s practices have a negative impact on students who attend the district’s public schools.

STUDENTS PUSHED OUT: Charter schools create a two-track system of public schools, described by the national NAACP as “separate and unequal.” Charters typically underserve special needs students, English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. Many use harsh discipline policies to push out the students they don’t want.

POOR TEACHING AND LEARNING CONDITIONS: Rather than innovate, most charters focus on test prep and drill. In addition, they have high teacher turnover rates as a result of poor working conditions, long hours and lack of teacher autonomy. This undermines school stability and students’ learning conditions.

On Jan. 30, MTA Board members heard a presentation on the proposed campaign, as well as on widespread member opposition to lifting the cap on Commonwealth charter schools. The proposal called for an extensive grassroots, media and get-out-the-vote campaign. Executive Director-Treasurer Ann Clarke highlighted the dangerous destabilizing impact of any cap lift on districts and, eventually, on all public schools in Massachusetts.

Board members then voted to go into executive session to discuss a new business item proposed by members of the MTA Executive Committee concerning the campaign.

By a vote of the Board, the MTA will now enter into conversations with state legislators as they formulate a reform bill for charter schools speaking specifically to accountability measures. At the same time, using funds that the Public Relations/Organizing Campaign Committee had already committed, the MTA will begin to support a grassroots effort to fight any lifting of the charter cap.

“The MTA did not seek out the charter school fight,” Madeloni said. “It has been forced on us by pro-charter forces, as well as by Governor Charlie Baker and his allies in the State House. But now that it is before us, we must take it on.”

Great Schools Massachusetts, the group spearheading the campaign to lift the cap, announced recently that it is prepared to spend a record-breaking $18 million in 2016 to pass a bill in the Legislature or a measure on the ballot. Much of the organization’s funding comes from Families for Excellent Schools, a New York-based group with strong ties to Wall Street.

The stakes are high. Today, district public schools lose more than $408 million a year to charter schools. Several big districts, including Boston and Springfield, are nearing their spending caps, which top out at 18 percent of net school spending. The leading cap-lift proposals would blow the lid off current limits. In a worst-case scenario, public schools could lose more than $3 billion a year to charter schools in 20 years.

The first stop is the Legislature, where several cap-lift bills have been filed, including one by Baker. Like the ballot question, Baker’s measure would allow up to 12 new Commonwealth charter schools per year in addition to the number allowed under current law. Both measures would allow these schools to enroll up to 1 percent of the total school-age population each year — about 9,500 students.

Baker’s bill would abolish the current spending limits in the 73 school districts whose students score in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests. Those districts include most large urban communities in Massachusetts and educate about 40 percent of all students.

Under the ballot initiative, the schools could be opened anywhere. Under either measure, entire districts could be turned over to private charter school operators in a single year.

Adding insult to injury, Baker’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal would slash reimbursements to school districts that are dislocated by the sudden loss of students and funding to charter schools. Most districts would receive reimbursements for just one year instead of the current six.

“The governor and his friends on Wall Street are intent on starving public schools of needed resources in order to ‘prove’ they are failing and ultimately privatize our system,” Madeloni said. “We must not cave in to their threats in any way. We must not allow any cap-lift bill that would ultimately siphon billions of dollars from our public schools.”

On another front, MEJA members are also fighting a lawsuit seeking to abolish all caps on charter schools.

The New England Area Conference of the NAACP, a member of the coalition, has intervened in opposition to the suit along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and seven public school students. The intervenors cite evidence that charter schools “divert millions of dollars from traditional public schools each year, yet serve proportionately far fewer students with disabilities and English language learners and impose harsher discipline on students of color,” the Lawyers’ Committee said.

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