Charter schools also eager for funding fix

Strapped budgets only exacerbate district-charter tensions

GARDNER AUDITORIUM AT the State House was packed on Friday as the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education listened to all-day testimony about the need to adequately fund our public schools.

In the state’s charter public school sector, we look at these challenges from a holistic perspective. As public school leaders and educators, working alongside and, in many cases, in partnership with our district counterparts, we are committed to supporting more funding for all public school students in Massachusetts, especially the students and communities that need it the most.

You may be asking yourself, why is the charter public school sector weighing in on this issue?

We care for a few reasons. First, our mission includes ensuring that all children and families of the Commonwealth have access to high quality public schools. This means advocating for and supporting policies and regulations that will benefit all kids, whether they attend a district or charter public school. Second, when district public schools struggle financially, it creates tension between districts and charter leaders and teachers, and lessens opportunities for collaboration to advance our shared goal to educate and lift up the kids of our Commonwealth. As such, we not only support increased funding for all public schools, but we also support full and sustainable funding of district reimbursement for charter school tuition.

The Legislature’s Foundation Budget Review Commission created an important road map for the work to come. The commission highlighted how the way we fund public education has not kept up with the needs of our communities and our students. A lot has changed since 1993 when the state fundamentally transformed education in Massachusetts and committed to a multi-year, multi-billion dollar investment to fund reforms. The Legislature has periodically updated the formula since then, but we can all agree that it is time for a comprehensive overhaul.

One fundamental goal needs to guide the Legislature’s deliberations — additional funding should be directed to the students, schools, and communities that need it most.

Our public schools are educating an ever increasing number of students with high needs — low-income students in both our urban and rural districts, English language learners whose parents have come seeking a better life for their families, and children with varying degrees of special needs, including children on the autism spectrum.

Districts are also facing pressures related to competitive pay for teachers, rising costs of health care, teacher retirement benefits, and transportation. These cost pressures have grown at higher rates than the 2.6 percent average growth in education aid the state has been able to send to cities and towns over the past decade. These financial pressures are most apparent when visiting specific communities across the state.

The state’s Gateway Cities are almost wholly reliant on state aid to fund their schools, and are perhaps the most negatively impacted by the inequities in the current formula. Gateway City schools are educating a student population that is low income and high need, and they struggle just to cover the minimums: providing adequate math and science instruction, meeting the needs of English language learners, or preparing kids for college or careers. Extracurricular activities — art, music, athletics, after-school learning — should be fundamentals in any public school system, but are instead viewed as elusive luxuries. Aging facilities are another problem. It’s difficult to prepare students for academic excellence and global citizenship when classroom time is lost because of basic climate control or leaky roofs.

Additionally, these schools struggle to retain the best teachers because they cannot compete with teacher salaries from some of the more affluent communities around them. Where our wealthier districts can fill in their funding gaps with local taxes, low-income districts with low tax bases, like Springfield, Lawrence, or Fall River, cannot.

Rural communities face their own unique pressures. Fewer industries and job opportunities have led to a steady decline in population, and public school enrollment in these communities is about half what it was in 1993. But costs have continued to rise. Rural school districts spend more, per pupil, for costs associated with teachers, paraprofessional educators, and student transportation than other parts of Massachusetts. And since the Chapter 70 funding formula is tied to enrollment numbers, rural districts across the state haven’t seen an increase in revenue to match rising costs. When we are funding our schools just enough to “function,” we are selling our children short.

Boston faces a distinctive challenge. While the city has a substantial commercial property tax base, district and charter public schools in Boston serve a predominantly low-income student population with high needs. This sets it apart from every other high property tax community, which serves predominantly upper income families. Mayor Walsh has committed substantial city resources to Boston’s schools. We recognize that many of Boston’s students would benefit from additional resources, and we support ongoing conversations that will help meet these financial needs in the city of Boston.

Addressing these inequities in the formula needs to be combined with a multi-year commitment to increase education funding on par with what the state accomplished in the 1990s. Public school leaders are looking for more predictable funding patterns that will accurately reflect the costs schools and districts face.

Lastly, whether in Gateway cities, rural areas, or Boston, the Legislature recognizes that it is important to build in flexibility for schools and communities to adjust to changing enrollment patterns over time, which is why they created a charter tuition reimbursement to support districts with transitional aid. When a district loses enrollment to another town or to a vocational technical school, it doesn’t get reimbursed, so the charter reimbursement presents an important and unique funding source for districts. Our district partners deserve a reimbursement schedule that is consistent, predictable, fair — and fully funded, and we are advocating for this in addition to increased funding for all students.

Meet the Author

Kristin Harrison

Christa McAuliffe Charter School
Meet the Author

Calvin McFadden

Guest Contributor, MLK Charter School of Excellence
While Massachusetts public schools are consistently ranked highest in the nation, that success will continue to elude school districts in urban and rural areas that simply don’t have the resources to provide our children with the high quality, well-rounded education they deserve. If we are serious about narrowing these opportunity gaps, we must address inequities in funding that exacerbate inequities in academic outcomes.

Kristin Harrison is executive director of the Christa McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham and Calvin McFadden is executive director of the Martin Luther King Charter School of Excellence in Springfield.