Editorial: State’s financial backing of charter schools continues to erode

Last modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013

Massachusetts lawmakers are poised to go back on a pledge made more than 20 years ago to properly fund reimbursements for charter school tuition to sending communities.

It would require $103 million to fully fund the state’s obligation to reimburse districts for a portion of Chapter 70 education aid spent on charter school tuition. But the Senate’s state operating budget proposal sets aside $80.3 million for the reimbursement. The House has proposed allocating $76.4 million.

Gov. Deval Patrick filed a supplemental budget request 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.

An amendment was filed by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, to fully cover 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 in May.

This wouldn’t be the first time the state has backed out of its financial obligations to local school districts — it’s not even the first time the state has cut funding for charter school reimbursements. When legislators propose an initiative, it usually comes with a promise of at least partial funding to cushion the burden of the added work. But as the years go by, that promise often gets reworded, weakened and in some cases disavowed entirely. It’s an old story.

The Massachusetts associations of school business officers, superintendents and school committees compiled lists of unfunded or partially funded mandates made by the state for local school districts. The educational musts that remain inadequately supported include special education, bus transportation, services for English-language learners, MCAS testing, curriculum requirements, school choice, staffing levels and building maintenance, according to the report, written by the Chelmsford School Committee.

It’s unreasonable for the state to unilaterally cut funding for public programs. This sends cities and towns scrambling to cover budget gaps or face the consequences, which can include funding cuts and increased government oversight.

It’s also unreasonable for the state to assume it can meet its obligations in perpetuity without a designated and sustainable funding source for each new mandate. Relying on taxpayers to fund all the state’s pledges is not feasible. If it were, there wouldn’t be any unfunded mandates.

Political promises come out of our pockets, and we have our limits.

This does not mean we as a state should stop creating ways to improve education and other public services, even if these improvements cost money.

What is the solution to this perpetual revenue problem?

There isn’t one, at least not yet.

While legislators and community leaders should continue to craft solutions to public problems, the state should be honest about its ability to cover their cost.

Give it to us straight. Yes, acknowledging spending limits may make legislation more difficult to pass.

But it won’t leave towns in the lurch 10 years later, when the financial bottom drops out.


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