School districts face drop in charter reimbursements from state
Bridge Street School second graders Kaitlyn Nowak, left, and Elizabeth Watts took a lap around the playground at their Northampton school during recess one recent day. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — School districts that send children to charter schools will likely pay more for the same education next year.
Both the Senate and House versions of next year’s state operating budget propose reducing charter school tuition reimbursements to communities.
Since charter schools were founded in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, the state has promised to reimburse communities a portion of year-to-year tuition increases. There were only two times before when the state was unable to fully fund the refund.
It would require $103 million to fully fund the state’s obligation to reimburse school districts for a portion of Chapter 70 education aid spent on charter school tuition, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
However, the Senate version of the budget sets aside $80.3 million for the reimbursement. The House has proposed setting aside $76.4 million.
An amendment was filed by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, to fully fund the state’s obligation. The measure was supported by several lawmakers, including Sens. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield, and James Welch, D-West Springfield. But it was defeated on the Senate floor last week.
The reduced reimbursement would negatively impact local municipal budgets, said Granby Superintendent Isabelina Rodriguez.
“Unfortunately, that gets absorbed by the towns and often is seen in the billbacks to the school departments — so one way or another it costs the town/city schools,” Rodriguez wrote in an email to the Gazette.
A recent Gazette analysis of school choice and charter tuition costs per local school district found that many communities in Hampshire and Franklin counties spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on charter school tuition every year — and this adds up to large financial losses over time.
Northampton, for example, spent $6.4 million on charter school tuition from fiscal years 2008 to 2012.
“We don’t have sufficient funds to cover all the commitments made and that means we’re having to make difficult decisions about spending,” said Chang-Diaz, the Boston senator.
“There’s a range of opinions where people fall — pro-charter schools, anti. Regardless of those divisions, we don’t want to put students in one system against the others. We made this obligation to reimburse, so we need to find a way to live up to that commitment.”
Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association, said the association is in support of fully funding the charter tuition reimbursement, adding that the formula used to compensate school districts that send children to charter schools is fair. He said districts that complain charter schools are “bleeding them dry” fail to consider the savings of not having to educate as many students.
“The reimbursement that comes back to the districts is by far the most generous in the nation,” Slowey said. “It’s more than fair because the fixed costs don’t travel with the student, but also they no longer have to pay to educate those students.”
This isn’t the first time the state has been unable to fully fund the charter school reimbursement. In fiscal years 2002 and 2003, the program was only partially funded, said Lauren Greene, program coordinator with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Without full funding, Chang-Diaz said the reduction in reimbursement would likely be spread evenly across the state’s school districts.
Welch said charter schools — and their impact on cities and towns — are topics that come up on Beacon Hill every couple of years.
“Every other year or few years there’s a discussion around raising the cap on the amount of charter schools we can have and at the same time there’s talk about the reimbursement mechanism ... to help more communities bring more money back to those communities that host charter schools,” he said.
The Joint Conference Committee is now combining the Senate and House budgets into one proposal, which will be voted on by the Legislature before being sent on to the governor.
Greene said Gov. Deval Patrick filed a supplemental budget request earlier this month that included an $8 million addition to charter school reimbursements. But even with that, there would still be a $14.7 million to $18.6 million reimbursement deficit.
Chang-Diaz said since the amendment was defeated, she is now seeking to make sure the highest reimbursement rate — the Senate’s proposed $80.3 million — makes it into the final version of the budget.
“My plan is to raise the flag here about the problem of a shortfall in this account and what a disruption it causes for districts and what sort of really unintended competition it causes vis-a-vis charter school students and district school students,” she said.
“They’re all kids. We have an obligation and desire to educate all of them and that’s not what happens when the program isn’t fully funded.”
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.