Charter schools are not ‘draining’ district budgets

Biggest problem in districts is failure to adjust to smaller enrollment

AS THIS NOVEMBER’S ballot initiative on raising the cap on the number of charter public schools in Massachusetts draws closer, opponents find ever-more financial woes to blame on the schools. But a September Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation study is just the latest to conclude that those accusations don’t pass muster.

The MTF study finds that “Examination of school funding trends in districts affected by charter school enrolments does not suggest… that students in district schools are suffering a loss of support…”

Students at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston.

Students at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston.

A closer look at Boston, where some of the loudest anti-charter cries have come from, reveals the true story. Roughly speaking, when a student chooses to leave a traditional district for a charter school, funding follows the student. But state law calls for districts to be reimbursed for six years after a student departs; 100 percent the first year and then 25 percent in each of the next five.

Critics protest that the reimbursements are subject to appropriation, but the formula has been at least 90 percent funded in 9 of the last 12 years, making it the nation’s most generous charter reimbursement program. In New Orleans and Washington, DC, the cities with the highest percentages of students attending charter schools, districts receive no reimbursement.

The Boston Public Schools’ biggest financial challenge is posed not by charter schools, but by having far more capacity than it does students. The system has about 93,000 seats, but just 56,500 enrollees. A 2015 McKinsey & Company audit of BPS estimated that rightsizing the system could save about $100 million.

Opponents blame charter schools for falling BPS enrollment as well, but only 14 percent of Boston students who attend public schools are in charters. The district has been shrinking for decades, with enrollment decreasing by nearly half since the early 1970s.

Despite accusations that charter schools are impoverishing BPS, the city’s education expenditures continue to rise. Between 2011 and 2016, the schools budget jumped by about 25 percent, more than the 18.4 increase for police and fire and about double the rate of increase for all other city departments.

A formula is used each year to calculate the “foundation budget,” the amount the state deems necessary to educate a district’s students. Last year Boston spent $157.6 million above that amount.

Headcount is also on the rise. Despite enrollment declines, the number of school department employees rose by more than 9 percent between 2012 and 2015. Although BPS makes up just over half the city’s workforce, it accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in the number of city employees during that time.

Lost in all this money talk are the facts about academic performance. Massachusetts charters are generally considered the nation’s best. A 2013 Stanford University study found that statewide, charter schools closed more than 90 percent of the wealth-based achievement gap on 2013 MCAS tests. There is little mystery behind why more than 32,000 Massachusetts students languish on charter waitlists.

Boston’s charters are even better. The same Stanford study found that the city’s charter students are learning at literally twice the rate of their BPS counterparts.

In a special report published earlier this year, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau wrote that the “true cost of charter expansion has not been a matter of revenue, but rather the struggle of eliminating excess capacity.” In fact, the start of the enrollment decline that precipitated the excess capacity predated charter schools by more than two decades.

Meet the Author

It’s certainly no surprise that opponents are blaming charter public schools for a range of financial woes. But the recent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation study and a closer look at Boston school finances demonstrate why it’s so important that we set the record straight before Massachusetts voters go to the polls in November.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts public policy think tank.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    I expected the 2015 McKinsey & Company’s so-called audit of Boston Public Schools to be done on a school by school basis so readers could see photos of the facilities and details on square footage accompanied by explanations on any unused space. It didn’t. For Pete’s sake didn’t a report come out a few weeks ago stating more than half of public schools in Boston don’t have libraries? So what else should be in Boston Public Schools excess capacity that isn’t? What does it take to have an informed public debate on public education? Certainly not a commentary by Charles Chieppo who runs Chieppo Strategies LLC that “mixes unique public policy expertise with a proven record of effective advocacy to deliver results for clients.” So someone paid Chieppo to hype a useless Boston Public Schools audit and two pro-charter schools “studies” financed by pro-charter schools nonprofit The Boston Foundation. Great….just great. VOTE NO on Question 2.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s the real story on Boston Public Schools “biggest financial challenge?” The $136,715,535 that Boston Public Schools will lose to charter schools in FY17. How does such a significant loss of funding translate at the school level? Boston Latin School doesn’t offer 8th grade science even though those students take an 8th grade MCAS science test. Thanks to not having an 8th science class, Boston Latin School’s 8th grade MCAS science results are: 4% Warning/Failing; 64% Needs Improvement; 31% Proficient and only 1% Advanced. So 68% of Boston Latin School’s 8th graders…that 68% are in the Warning/ Failing/Needs Improvement categories. In other words, one of the top public schools in the country has only 32% of 8th grade students Proficient/Advanced in science. VOTE NO on Question 2.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    About one month ago, WBUR had an article, :’There Is No Yelp’: Why Parents Struggle With The State’s Special Ed System,” that had an accompanying chart spanning twelve years 2003-2015 showing the student population in Massachusetts declining by 27,072 or 2.73% while at the same time the enrollment in special education increased by 9,856 or 6.35%. That state data showed the number of special ed students with severe disabilities is increasing….INCREASING! What’s going on? Are babies being born in Massachusetts with those identified health issues? Are apparently healthy children developing neurologoical issues, autism, developmental delay etc.?
    Are out-of-state families with children needing special services moving to Massachusetts? Are students being diagnosed just to fill available seats? What is going on? Is anyone at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health investigating? Here’s how public schools having increasing numbers of Special Education students causes additional financial stresses: the state legislature failed to fully fund the Foundation Budget…the mechanism the state uses to distribute education aid to local public school districts. A report from one year ago identified a known shortfall of more than $1 billion for costs the state should be supporting but isn’t. One of those areas not fully funded is Special Education. It’s no wonder public schools are under such incredible financial pressures. When the facts are discussed it’s easy to VOTE NO on Question 2.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    And what’s with the 2013 Stanford study finding “the city’s charter students are learning at literally twice the rate of their BPS counterparts?” The study, “Charter School Performance in Massachusetts,” used a “quasi-experimental study design” that compared real charter school students to “virtual” or not real public school students. And guess what the study found? The real charter school students showed more learning gains than the make believe public school students. It’s true. You can’t make this charter school stuff up. Real charter school students vs. pretend public school students. That’s what passes as a charter school “study.” VOTE NO on Question 2.

    • Dmitri Mehlhorn

      That particular CREDO methodology of virtual pairing is necessary because people like you claim that charters get their better results from cherry-picking. That methodology was also PRAISED by Diane Ravitch and other charter denialists when it showed, in 2009, that on average nationally, charters didn’t do better than traditional schools. Of course, when later research showed that charters dramatically improved their performance between 2009 and 2015 by closing bad schools and expanding good schools (something neighborhood schools rarely do), the methodology stopped getting so much praise. And when it showed that the results in urban centers was dramatically better for students of color? Well, then we have to say that it’s just made-up stuff — the exact same methodology that was carefully constructed by academics and earned praise from your side 5 years ago. Despicable abuse of the truth. I assume you don’t vaccinate your kids and plan to vote for Trump.

      • Mhmjjj2012

        I’m not on any “side.” There’s a serious problem when make believe public school students are compared to real charter school students and the real charter school students somehow outperform the nonexistent public school students. A “quasi-experimental study design” isn’t something to point to as a reason for more charter schools in Massachusetts. Charter school proponents can’t make the case for more charter schools with real facts. I’m still waiting for you to name 15 Massachusetts charter schools that “offer demonstrably, unequivocally superior education for students of color in urban settings” with students reflective of their sending public schools in English Language Learners, low income and special education…just to make a fair comparison. Again, good luck…you’ll need it.

        • Dmitri Mehlhorn

          Wow. You really do need me to retype the studies for you. OK. If that helps, so be it.

          Katherine Merseth in 2009 studied how 5 charters in MA used their flexibility to have longer days and robust accountability for teachers. Her work, published in Harvard Education Press, included Community Day Charter Public School; Roxbury Preparatory Charter School; Boston Collegiate Charter School; The Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School; and The MATCH Charter Public High School. I’m not sure if all of them have continued to succeed, or if they’ve adapted since 2009 (most charters have), but any of those schools could have grown to multiple charter locations.

          Then there’s KIPP. In MA, KIPP operates 5 schools in 2 locations (Lynn and Roxbury), serving 1,600 students. NBER studied KIPP in MA, and concluded in 2010 that “We use applicant lotteries to evaluate the impact of KIPP Academy Lynn, a KIPP charter school that is mostly Hispanic and has a high concentration of limited English proficiency (LEP) and special-need students, groups that charter critics have argued are typically under-served. The results show overall gains of 0.35 standard deviations in math and 0.12 standard deviations in reading for each year spent at KIPP Lynn. LEP students, special education students, and those with low baseline scores benefit more from time spent at KIPP than do other students”

          Here are the charter schools studied by the NBER study “Stand and Deliver” which had the following findings: “Our findings suggests that the gains from Boston’s high-performing charter high schools are remarkably persistent. Charter school attendance increases the pass rate on the exam required for high school graduation in Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship. Lottery estimates also show gains on the SAT and on Advanced Placement tests. Charter attendance boosts SAT scores sharply, especially in math, while doubling the likelihood that a student sits for an AP exam and increasing the fraction of students who pass AP Calculus. Our evidence suggests that charter attendance increases college enrollment, but the number of charter applicants old enough to be in college is still too small for this result to be conclusive. At the same time, charter attendance induces a clear shift from two-year to four-year colleges, with gains most pronounced at four-year public institutions in Massachusetts.”

          Academy of the Pacific Rim
          Boston Preparatory
          City on a Hill
          Codman Academy
          Boston Collegiate High
          Health Careers Academy

          From the Oxford Quarterly Journal of Economics Study “Accountability and Flexibility in Public Schools: Evidence from Boston’s Charters And Pilots” which concluded that “Lottery estimates show large and significant score gains for charter students in middle and high school. In contrast, lottery estimates for pilot school students are mostly small and insignificant, with some significant negative effects. Charter schools with binding assignment lotteries appear to generate larger gains than other charters.” Schools from that study included many of the schools mentioned above.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            The title of Katherine Merseth’s 2009 work is “Inside Urban Charter Schools Promising practices and strategies in five high-performing schools.” Note the word “Promising” in the title. It’s a 275 page book that’s more than seven years old with a $29.95 price tag so I won’t be reading it. Here’s a summary of each of the five charter schools most recent performance according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website:
            Community Day Charter Public School K1-8 Level 1 “Meeting gap narrowing goals” so far so good but in 2008 the kindergarten class had 85 students but by 2016 only 43 of those students made it to 8th grade. Did that charter school shed lower performing students for its Level 1 designation?
            Roxbury Preparatory Charter School Grades 5-9 Level 1 “Meeting gap narrowing goals” In 2013 Roxbury Prep had a 59.8% out-of-school suspension rate that dropped to 40% in 2015.
            Boston Collegiate Charter School Grades 5-12 Level 2 “Not meeting gap narrowing goals” In three of the most recent four years, Boston Collegiate has a Level 2 Accountability Rating. Even though Boston Collegiate Charter School operates Grades 5 to 12 that charter school does not accept any students after Grade 8 so the only way to get into that charter school’s high school is if a student already attends Grades 5 to 8. What’s interesting about the students is in 2009 Grade 5 had 97 students but by Grade 12 there were only 65 students remaining for a loss of 32 students or 33%. Looks like students found someplace else to go. Home schooled? Private school? Catholic school? Public school?
            Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School Grade 5-12 Level 2 “Not meeting gap narrowing goals” It’s been Level 2 for the past four years.
            The MATCH Charter Public High School Level 2 “Not meeting gap narrowing goals” has been a Level 2 for the past three years.
            Anyhow, of the five charter schools featured in the 2009 book you referenced, three operate at Level 2 “Not meeting gap narrowing goals.”
            Perhaps, to make your case you should check out the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website before you name the charter schools. VOTE NO on Question 2.

          • Dmitri Mehlhorn

            Once again you prefer to do your own analysis of raw data rather than to look at the academic inquiry that NBER published (it’s free). That’s why I brought up climate change. Charter denlialism and climate denialism have so much in common with each other it’s shocking, and I’ve been trying to engage with both for decades. Just like Senator Inhofe said that he could personally see a snowball therefore he disagreed with the scientists, you personally look at the charters and say that they’re not good enough. No one ever said that charters have to be a silver bullet and solve every problem instantly; the question is whether they make the situation better for the students involved. On average, compared with students who have the same demographic background, and indeed students who entered the lotteries to attend those schools but failed to get in, students who attended the charter schools listed did much, much better. That includes demographics. Do they have more to do? Yes. Are their MA DoE scores perfect? I doubt that they are. But what question are we asking? The question is DO THEY DO BETTER FOR THE STUDENTS. Right now you have tens of thousands of students on wait lists to get into these charter schools, unambiguous evidence from independent academics that they will do much better in life on average if they get into those charter schools, and a state law blocking those charter schools from expanding their campuses to let them in. That state law is being backed, right now, by people like you. In fact, by you personally through your grassroots lobbying. These are often disadvantaged students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the state’s taxpayers have allocated enough money for them to have a real shot at life, and you’re stopping them. It’s frankly horrifying.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            What’s great about the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website is the charter school details are there…you just have to go on the state’s website, find the charter school you’re interested in and read. It’s an exercise you should try.
            NBER is the National Bureau of Economic Research: “a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works.” I don’t know why NBER did so much “research” on charter schools but here’s a quote from page 4 of the “Stand and Deliver” report you referenced: “2.2 Data and Sample School Selection We set out to study the effects of attendance at six charter high schools in Boston. These schools generated the lottery-based estimates of charter high school achievement effects reported in our earlier study…and account for the bulk of charter high school enrollment in Boston today… Two additional charter high schools serving Boston students in the same period are now closed. One school that is still open has poor records and appears unsuitable for a lottery-based analysis.” Again, just as in other pro-charter schools studies two “closed” charter schools and a third charter school with poor recording keeping aren’t included in the analysis. That has an impact on the results…making charter schools look better than they really are. That’s not rocket science. VOTE NO on Question 2.

          • Dmitri Mehlhorn

            Again, the parallels with climate denialism. Every independent scholar is somehow in the tank for charters, not because they’re scientists but because they’ve got ulterior motives. Sarah Cohodes at Teachers College of Columbia, Sue Dynarski of Michigan, Tom Kane of Harvard, Doug Staiger of Dartmouth, Eric Hanusek of Stanford, Paul Peterson of Harvard, the entire Stanford CREDO whose methodology was praised by anti-charter folks — all of them are in the tank. The only folks that can be trusted are the NEPC, the Tobacco Institute of education that gets its funding from the unions who compete with charters — or, alternatively, folks just gathering their own data and coming to their own conclusions like Inhofe.

            You want to keep it simple? Fine. There are at least 15 thousand kids in MA, and probably more like twice that number, who are on wait lists to get into charter schools. They are about 80% nonwhite. Massachusetts taxpayers are paying for them to get a great education, and their parents want and believe that charters will give them a better shot. They are legally required to send their kids to school, but they cannot move to better neighborhoods with better schools because of economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods. You are standing at the door, preventing them from escaping to something that they believe is right for them, using the might of an 85% white political powerhouse to shoot down a ballot initiative that would give them the education they request. You are like the white plantation owners in the post-Reconstruction South who don’t want the money to go directly to black families, so you make up arguments about how really it would be better if the money went to a white power center because the white power center will take care of it better than those folks would. It’s despicable reasoning and an awful situation and it’s one that you are defending.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            You haven’t offered one single fact for an unlimited number of charter schools in Massachusetts. You can’t make the case for more charter schools. Most important, you don’t have one decent comeback on my comments so you’re off the rails on a crazy train writing I am “standing at the door, preventing them from escaping to something that they believe is right for them.” Are you really so desperate you have to paint me as a “George Wallace?” Just make your case for more charter schools and respond to my comments on the half-baked studies and reports you think make your case but don’t.

          • Dmitri Mehlhorn

            They do make the case. They are not half-baked. They are the result of exhaustive research covering thousands of hours of independent inquiry by literally dozens of top-tier researchers. Students of color from urban areas who attend these charter schools have much better life outcomes than those who could not attend them because there were not enough spaces and so they literally lost the lottery. The judgement of most independent researchers and tens of thousands of families is that these charter spaces need to be expanded. You disagree, fine, but just realize you are overruling the scientific consensus AND the parents in need because you have done your own analysis and concluded that these studies do not say what the academics claim that they say.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            The NBER you keep pointing to did not include two closed charter schools and one charter school with poor records in its study. That omission alone is enough to discredit the so-called study. Tell me exactly how it doesn’t discredit the study. VOTE NO on Question 2.

          • Dmitri Mehlhorn

            You clearly do not understand charter schools. The whole POINT is that they close. And if you would have preferred for NBER to use a school with bad records, then perhaps you do not understand scientific research.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            But if a study doesn’t include the students performance in charter schools whose charters were revoked for poor academic performance then the results certainly get tilted in charter schools favor. That’s the point.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            The study you keep referencing discounts its own findings: “but the number of charter applicants old enough to be in college is still too small for this result to be conclusive.” What will it take for you to see there are no facts for more charter schools in Massachusetts…none. VOTE NO on Question 2.

          • Dmitri Mehlhorn

            That is a caveat to ONE of the long list of findings that they report for charter schools. Why don’t you quote the entire paragraph if you’re so interested in scientific integrity? I am done with you. You clearly have no interest in the actual merits. Good night sir or madam.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            You never answered whether you’re submitting your comments from out of state or recently moved to Massachusetts.

  • Beeker

    But the recent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation study

    The MTF was paid by the pro charter to publish this.

    While I agree on the need for better accountability of educating students to enter the workforce prepared, the argument advanced by the pro charter only focused on the the short term which is six years. It doesn’t talk about the seventh year and beyond. Furthermore it allows charter school expand 12 a year with no cap.

  • Jack Covey

    During the next month leading up to Tuesday, November 8, as you see or listen to the slick and expensive Madison Avenue-level TV/radio commercials promoting “YES” on Question 2 promulgating such lies as …

    “Question 2 will add more money to public schools (LIE: it won’t. In fact it will do just the opposite.


    “Question 2 won’t take money away from existing public schools (LIE: it will… a lot of money, in fact.)

    … or when view the slick mailers you find in your mailbox, or when listen to robo-calls, think about this following post:

    The latest is that over $21.7 million of out-of-state money from the most ruthless capitalists who have ever walked the Earth — Eli Broad, the Walton family of Walmart, Wall Street hedge fund managers, etc. — is pouring into Massachusetts to pass Question 2.

    Read this well-researched article here for that $21.7 million figure:

    These profit-minded plutocrats who are pouring in this money obviously …

    — do not live in Massachusetts,

    — have no children, grandchildren, or other relatives that attend public schools in Massachusetts

    — have never given a sh#% about the education of middle or lower income until recently, when they realized they could make a buck off privatizing Massachusetts schools via the expansion of privately-run charter schools,.

    They want to these corporate charter schools to replace truly public schools— the ones that, for generations, have been accountable and transparent to the public via democratically elected school boards, and which are mandated to educate ALL of the public… including those hardest or most difficult to educate … special ed., English Language Learners, homeless kids, foster care kids, kids with difficult behavior arising from distressed home lives.

    Are proponents of Question 2 seriously making the argument that out-of-state billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund managers are pumping in all this money because those folks care so much about the education of kids in Massachusetts?

    You really think they are NOT seeking a big money return on these ($21.7 million campaign donations?

    Does that pass the smell test?

    Can you provide an example of JUST ONE TIME in the past where they poured in this kind of cash to something … no strings attached, and with no expectations of return?

    If, as Q 2 supporters like Marty Walz claim, the most ruthless capitalists that have ever walked the Earth are now kicking in this kind of cash to pass Question 2 merely because they care about children’s education —

    … and if they are not about their profiting through the privatization of public schools brought about by the expansion of privately-run charter schools,

    … then I’m sure one of you Q 2 supporters could google and find a past example where they have done something similar .. .again out of generosity… with no expectation of an eventual monetary return…

    Something like …

    “Well, back in 2000-something, or 1900-something, these same folks donated $20 million to the (INSERT CHARITABLE CAUSE HERE). Here’s the link that proves this.”

    No, I didn’t think so. When this was brought up in a debate, Mary Walz refused to address it, saying, “We need to talk about the kids, not the adults.” Well, keeping money-motivated scum from raping and pillaging Massachusetts public schools IS CARING ABOUT THE KIDS, Marty! (By the way, those are many of the same folks who raped and pillaged the housing/mortgage industry a decade ago … go watch the film THE BIG SHORT to get up to speed on that … they’ve just moved on to new place to plunder.)

    So the real question is:

    To whom do the schools of Massachusetts belong? The citizens and parents who pay the taxes there?

    Or a bunch of money-motivated out-of-state billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund managers who are trying to buy them via Question 2, and the expansion of privately-managed charter schools which they control, or also profit from their on-line and digital learning products that will be sold to these charter school chains?

    If you believe the former, THEN FOR GOD’S SAKE, VOTE “NO” ON QUESTION 2.

    Send them a message: Massachusetts schools are NOT FOR SALE!!!

    Oh and go watch the John Oliver charter school video:
    Oh and listen to this dissection of a “YES on 2” radio ad: