Rep. Thomas O’Brien claims his charter school bill is being put forward primarily for fiscal reasons, in the belief that a moratorium on the granting of new charters will somehow save money for the Commonwealth and its public schools during this time of budgetary crisis. If this is the intent, the bill fails even on its own terms.

First, charter schools are public schools. They may not be run by local school districts, but they are open to all students, subject to state regulation, and accountable to the state board of education. In other words, every dollar spent on charter schools is spent on public education.

Second, a moratorium on granting new charters would have no practical effect until fiscal 2005. The next round of charter applications will be considered by the board of education in February 2003. If the past is any indication, most of the schools approved at that time will not open their doors until the fall of 2004. By that time, we should be well beyond the current economic slump.

Third, the biggest drain on the state budget relative to charter schools is the reimbursement program, which repays districts a portion of the charter school tuition that is deducted from their local aid allocation (Chapter 70). Freezing or even reducing the number of students enrolled in charter schools would have virtually no impact on the state’s Chapter 70 spending, since these students would be supported by the state whether they were enrolled in charter schools or in district schools. If the Legislature wishes to find savings in this area, it should adopt the governor’s recommendation to reduce the rate of district reimbursement for students who are not in their classrooms.

Fourth, notwithstanding complaints that charter schools are impoverishing school districts, a close inspection of the financing system shows that charter schools are not a fiscal burden to most municipalities.

Charter school students are counted in the district enrollment numbers that are used for calculating state education aid. As a result, a district with resident charter school students receives state revenue through Chapter 70 for students who are not actually enrolled in the district’s schools. In addition, such districts receive partial reimbursement from the state for the portion of their Chapter 70 revenue that is deducted for charter school tuition payments. These two revenue streams substantially reduce the net cost to a district for students who attend charter schools.

Let’s look at the city of Worcester as an example. In the current fiscal year, 2002, Worcester reported an enrollment of just over 27,000, including 1,217 charter school students. Worcester is slated to receive Chapter 70 assistance of more than $5,400 per pupil, for a total of $148 million in direct school aid from the state. The charter school students included in Worcester’s enrollment generate just under $6.7 million in additional Chapter 70 aid for the district. On top of these revenues, the district receives partial tuition reimbursements of about $1.7 million. In total, then, Worcester receives close to $8.4 million in state aid for students who are not enrolled in the district’s schools. Then the state deducts about $9.7 million to cover charter school tuition for these students.

Therefore, the net cost to the district of its charter school students is about $1,000 per pupil–not even half the local revenue spent to educate the average student in the Worcester public schools. On top of that, these 1,217 students are housed in buildings that were built or renovated without a single dime of municipal money. All in all, I would say that Worcester is getting a heck of a bargain.

Let’s look at the numbers from a different perspective. In fiscal 1995, the year before the first charter school opened its doors, Worcester received about $3,000 per student in state aid. In 2002, Worcester will receive over $5,400 per student, excluding students enrolled in charter schools. This represents an increase of almost $2,400 per student, or close to 80 percent. Whatever charter school students have cost local school districts by leaving has been more than made up by additional state aid to the students who remain.

Meet the Author
No matter how you slice it, charter schools are not impoverishing the state’s school districts. I am sorry to say that the underlying purpose of this bill does not appear to be fiscal at all. Instead, this moratorium seems to be yet another attempt to put an end to charter schools. One need only look at the section of the bill that would give the state auditor broad authority to reject all future charter applications to see that the state’s fiscal challenge is just a pretext for stopping the charter school movement in its tracks.

Charter schools are one of the great successes of education reform. There is no reason–fiscal or educational–to undermine them now.

James Peyser is chairman of the state Board of Education and education and work force development advisor to acting Gov. Jane Swift.