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Kipp Armstrong & Susannah Howe: Don’t blame public education troubles on charter schools

The formula is as follows: Charter schools receive directly from the state the average amount the sending district is spending on a child in the district, adjusted to reflect grade level and whether the student is a free or reduced lunch student or an English language learner. That adjusted amount is deducted from the Chapter 70 education aid to the district. Then the state turns around and reimburses the district for the cost of the student at the rate of 100 percent the first year and 25 percent for the next five years.

In Northampton this means that while approximately $10,000 per charter school student is deducted from state aid, over $2,800 is then reimbursed to Northampton. Moreover, and important to note, the district no longer has to educate the charter school student, so the reimbursement funds can be spent on remaining students. In other words, charter public schools receive the same amount of money that districts spend to educate children who switch schools. Then, districts are reimbursed by the state for six years — meaning they are getting paid for students they are no longer educating. Over that six-year period, they receive more than double their money back.

We wonder what Keisch Polin and Scott are arguing for when they argue against charter public schools. Are they saying parents should not have a choice when it comes to educating their children in a public school? Are they saying that districts should keep taxpayer dollars even though they are no longer educating our children? Are they saying that six years of state reimbursement for dollars transferred to charters is not enough?

The implied argument in their column, as well as in Mayor Narkewicz’s 2014 budget message, that charters are the cause of district budget problems, is also suspect. Charter schools are not an endless draw on district resources. State law caps the number of charters that can operate in individual districts by limiting the amount that a given district can spend on charter school tuition to 9 percent of the district’s annual net school spending.

The one point in their column we do agree with is that something needs to be done with the public school system. However, reabsorbing charter schools into the districts is not the answer.

The movement arose as an attempt to improve the performance of the public school system more than 20 years ago. Charter schools offer innovative choices and incentives to the overall public school system; they are not an attempt to create private schools within the public school system. Charter schools are open to all children and admission is by lottery.

The private school allegation is a fallacy and an unfair criticism.

The numbers regarding the educational successes of charter schools presented by Keisch Polin and Scott seem to conflict with recent data. They cite national studies of charter performance neglecting to mention that local studies have shown that Massachusetts charters are outperforming district schools by wide margins. The latest was conducted by researchers from Stanford University showing that the average charter public school student makes academic progress equivalent to spending 2½ more months in school in math and 1½ more months in school in English (compared to district students). Statewide, 56 percent of charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in math, 44 percent in English. Only 13 percent of charter schools have results that are significantly worse than district schools in reading; 17 percent in math.

Even when the authors concede that charters are performing at a higher level, they point to charter attrition rates and claim charters are pushing out harder-to-educate kids. However, Pioneer Valley charters’ attrition rates are the same or lower than Northampton’s (6.3 percent). Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School’s is 2 percent.

Their arguments are disingenuous at best. Let’s have an honest discussion about improving public education instead of continuing this dialogue that pits public school parents against each other.

Once again, after reading a column critical of charter schools, we find ourselves asking why the authors feel the need to misrepresent financial and efficacy data. And why are they not calling for a more rigorous program of disseminating best practices between public schools within a district?

Why the conflict? Why not work together towards a multifaceted, successful public school system? It occurs to us that if districts would stop trying to fight the existence of the charter school choice and foster a collaborative environment, all public school children could benefit.

The demand is clearly there. All charter schools in this area have long waiting lists. And the high level of academic performance has been verified by several studies of Massachusetts charters. It’s not the high price of charters that Keisch Polin and Scott should be concerned about.

It’s the high price of entrenched mediocrity. It may have been more productive for the authors to use the space in the paper to outline a plan to improve Northampton’s schools rather than tear down successful ones.

Charters are not the cause of district budget problems. And charter school parents should not be maligned for making decisions they feel are best for their children.

Kipp Armstrong of Northampton is president of the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School Board of Trustees. Susannah Howe of Northampton is its treasurer and past president.

Legacy Comments2

This is fuzzy math... The truth about the financing of charters and the strain it places on already over burdened public schools needs to be removed from the hall of smoke and mirrors and placed in the clear light of day for all who care about fairness and democracy to see and be outraged.

Of course charter school students outperform. They attract only those that are explicitly motivated. It's too bad that there are any charter schools as they drag down average GPAs at public schools.

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