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Nancy E. Grossman: Ease the charter school choke hold

Every year, Massachusetts school budgets are strained by the amount of public money that is drained from local coffers and sent off to neighboring charter schools, some of which are run by private corporations (putting a new twist on the meaning of “public” education).

Here’s how the budget-busting charter school funding formula works: Each child attending a charter school in the commonwealth takes with them a variable sum of local taxpayer dollars, usually between $10,000 and $17,000.

Until the Legislature’s recent proposal to cut reimbursements to sending districts by up to 25 percent, public school districts have gotten a small reprieve if charter costs go up from year to year, the equivalent of 225 percent of the new tuition obligation, spread out over six years — ostensibly to give a little time to plan what cuts need to be implemented in the home district.

For instance, if the Amherst district sends more than $1.54 million to charter schools this year (and it does), and the amount goes up to $1.64 million next year, up until now the state would pay the increased $100,000 in the first year, down to $25,000 in annual assistance over the next several years. Over time, as reimbursements expire, financially strapped public school districts end up shouldering the lion’s share of charter costs. Those who haven’t crunched the numbers often say this money is not missed, and that, heck, local schools are even paid to educate kids who are not there.

The true impact is much different.

Schools are built with a particular optimal capacity in mind, a “best guess” as to the future number of school-aged children in a town. If a school population declines (and the school-aged population is declining statewide anyhow, due to demographic trends), certain costs remain. In most cases maintenance, heating, and many staffing needs do not change significantly with a decrease of five or 50 or 100 kids. What changes is the ability to responsibly fund the education of the remaining children.

In the Amherst regional district, 67 kids in the six secondary grades now attend charter schools (54 children at the elementary level). That’s an average of 11 (or nine) students per grade — not even the equivalent of one full class, even if making up for their absence was as simple as cutting teaching jobs in core classes.

In my town of Leverett, five charter students this year take out of district $16,654 apiece, totaling $83,270 when the state reimbursements expire, or $56,935 in actual costs this year. That comes to more than the cost of a single teaching slot, while representing only one-quarter of the population of a class. Unsolvable math problems such as these led to the canceling of the beloved kindergarten through Grade 6 Spanish program in Leverett several years ago. n Amherst, cuts for next year include: gutting instructional time in physical education and all computer instruction at the middle school, the elimination of the Spanish program at the elementary schools and cutting the equivalent of more than 29 full-time positions — instructional aides, administrators and teaching staff. Recent years have also seen world language offerings in the secondary schools fall from six to four.

It is ironic that when specialty arts and language charter schools are being well funded, even running surpluses some years, arts and languages are squeezed in local schools.

Whatever one’s personal opinion about the relative merits of the charter school program, it is hard to ignore the fact that local school budgets are becoming increasingly burdened by out-of-district obligations. Locally, that financial strain has meant a gradual chipping away of the educational options and support services at community-based schools. Elsewhere, it has increasingly meant local schools (under the oversight of the local school committee, answering to the needs of local residents) are losing out in the rush to charters.

An alternative? As Leverett and Pelham have recently done, taxpayers can ask legislators to fund charter schools as a separate line item in the state budget. It won’t fix all the problems inherent in dramatically expanding the number of school facilities at a time of a decreasing population of school-aged children, but it’s a place to start.

Nancy E. Grossman is a member of the Leverett Finance Committee and parent of an eighth-grader at Amherst Regional Middle School. The opinions are her own. She can be reached at www.rivervalleyacupuncture.com.

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