Clare Higgins: Fairness, charters and education dollars

Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — This week the Massachusetts Legislature was unable to come to agreement on an education reform bill that would have done a number of things to improve elementary and secondary education. The main sticking point seems to be the provision that would lift the cap on charter schools in the districts that are performing in the lowest 10 percent, based primarily on their MCAS results.

This fight, with Boston legislators and parents on both sides of the issue, has stalled because of the long-standing divisive issue of funding.

Policy-makers think about children; parents think about their child. Policy-makers look at test scores and drop-out rates in the aggregate; parents know that their child gets only one chance at reading at grade level by third grade or developing the STEM competencies necessary in this increasingly complex world.

So when the Commonwealth sets up a parallel public school system that is not threatened by cuts every year, that can control class size and offer longer days, some parents will jump at that opportunity for their child.

I’m not looking to open up the fight about the existence of charter schools; in my opinion they are here to stay. Parents want choices. School systems that have failed generations of black and brown children have not been able to convince those parents that the public schools are on their side. Charter schools present the promise of opportunity for their children.

I don’t think the promise has been fully realized; children with special needs and children who are English language learners are under-represented in charters, which makes comparisons with the district schools more difficult.

In all of the turmoil and tumult about charter schools, we lose track of the fact that 98 percent of public school children in Massachusetts attend district public schools, not charter schools. There are 955,739 public school children in Massachusetts this year. Of those children, 31,300 are enrolled in charter schools; 197 public school districts have no children at all enrolled in a charter school. And 285 districts have less than 10 children enrolled in a charter school.

The school budgets in many, many communities are not affected by charter schools. But charter school tuition payments have taken huge bites out of some district school budgets, including Northampton, Easthampton, Greenfield and Holyoke. The system is based on the idea that the money follows the child. But the Commonwealth, recognizing that the district schools have fixed costs that predate the initiation of charters, has created a partial reimbursement to districts to offset the cost of charter school payments. This partial reimbursement also recognizes that, for district schools, the money doesn’t always follow the child. No money followed the surge of homeless children in Greenfield last fall. Greenfield public schools had to step up, enroll those children and help them and their families during their time in the motels.

This year, the reimbursement account was not fully funded. In fact, it is short by $28 million. In next year’s budget, the governor has underfunded the account by $29 million. This isn’t the first time — the state also underfunded the reimbursement account in 2002 and 2003. According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association: “Of the 20 cities and towns with the largest shortfalls this year, ranging from $250,000 to $10.3 million, 14 of them have been deemed by the state to be underperforming. These included some the state’s poorest and most financially distressed cities.” Education policy-makers have to balance the needs of all children with the brief span of any little one’s childhood. They hear the pleas of parents who want a charter school for their child. They hear district school parents desperate to preserve the schools and the staff that they and their children have come to love. Reformers tell them that charter schools can be the answer to closing the achievement gap.

The challenges facing legislators and policy-makers is not easy in a time of diminishing resources and increasing distrust in the ability of government to solve large problems.

But there are things we know children need if they are to succeed — great teaching, challenging curriculum, assessments to assist that great teaching and innovative school leaders. All of those things cost money. They cost money in the district schools and the charter schools. And the sad reality is that the state government has set up a formula for charter school funding guaranteed to pit families with children in charter schools against families with children in district schools. If the policy-makers and legislators want to lift the cap on charter schools, the least they can do is fully fund the charter school reimbursement program.

Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at


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