League of Women Voters members research impact of charter school payments on Northampton

Last modified: Sunday, December 20, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — As government officials debate whether to lift a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts is doing research of its own on the subject.

The nonpartisan organization will likely take about a year to research its position on charter schools, Nancy Polan said during a forum Thursday at the Northampton Senior Center about how charter school payments affect the Northampton schools. State figures show that Northampton paid $2.25 million in charter school tuition for about 200 students while receiving about $359,000 in aid during fiscal year 2015.

She said she and fellow League of Women Voters member Margie Riddle have already spent a year reviewing how the finances of charter school funding work because they were interested in how it affects the local Northampton district.

Riddle retired from being principal of the R. K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence more than two years ago, and Polan, a former high school science teacher in New Jersey, is also retired.

“The funding is affecting the sending districts to such a degree that was perhaps an unintended consequence to the Massachusetts law,” Riddle said. “There wasn’t an expectation that this would affect local districts’ budgets and make it impossible to do the things they want to do.”

Charter schools are receiving increased scrutiny as the Legislature debates whether or not to raise a 120-school cap on charter schools in the state, an issue that may be a future question on the ballot. Charter schools in Hampshire County include Hilltown Cooperative in Easthampton, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley and Pioneer Valley Performing Arts in South Hadley.

Complicated funding formula

The state’s funding formula for charters is complicated, differing depending on the charter school and the sending public school district. If a student in the Northampton Public Schools enrolls in one of the area charter schools, the district pays it between $11,000 and $15,000. That is based on what would have been spent at the traditional public school compared to how much would be spent at each individual charter school.

“It is so complex,” Riddle said. “We’re guessing few people understand it at all.”

The Northampton schools receive $5,000 in tuition from other public districts for students who do not reside in the city yet enroll in its schools under the state’s school choice program.

The state also provides reimbursement based on the increase in the amount of charter tuition a district has to pay in a given year. Often that is due to additional students leaving the district for charters, but could also be the case if a charter increases its tuition costs.

If the amount that a district pays to a charter school stays the same, the district would not receive reimbursement from the state.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the Legislature did not fully fund the reimbursement. The previous year, it was originally underfunded, but later funded through a supplemental budget.

Like all of those who spoke at Thursday’s forum, Northampton resident Sidney Moss came down against charter schools and described the traditional public schools as “being destroyed in front of our eyes.”

“Overall I want the charter schools out,” he said. “I want them out because they are a way of privatizing and destroying public schools.”

Molly Burnham, who was elected to the Northampton School Committee in November, and will take her seat in January, said Thursday that the charter school discussion is a passionate topic.

“For anybody who lives in Northampton and has friends who send kids to charter schools, it is complicated because you love these people and understand they want to take care of their children, and yet the discrepancy of the finances and funding of charter schools builds inequities in our system,” she said.

Burnham said it is important to get data to direct the discussion and commended Riddle and Polan for spending the time to gather it.

Other viewpoints

Valerie Gintis, a Northampton parent who sends her second grade daughter to Hilltown Cooperative Charter School, did not attend the forum, but in an interview Friday said the funding formula was not part of her decision.

“For us, we wanted to find a school that was going to meet our daughter’s academic needs and interests,” she said.

Gintis, who was not aware of Thursday’s forum, said that funding should be a separate discussion from whether there should be more charter schools.

“If the formula is wrong, instead of having charters vs. no charters, let’s work to change the funding formula and let families have choice,” she said.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said he believes that the funding formula is fair, though said it should be fully funded by the Legislature.

“The formula is based on the premise that the money follows the child and so when a student leaves a district school, the money they are spending on that child follows the child to the charter public school,” he said in an interview Friday. He also did not attend Thursday’s forum.

Kenen, who lives in Haydenville, added that he was open to discussing altering the reimbursement formula for smaller rural districts, which are more severely affected by a few students leaving than larger urban districts.

For Riddle and Polan, the discussion will continue. They plan a meeting with other chapters of the League of Women Voters in January.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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