Nancy Grossman: The horror of charter school finance

  • The Amherst Regional school district pays a high price for charter schools, the author argues. —WIKIMEDIA

Published: 6/7/2016 12:22:10 PM


‘Charter schools are killing us,” muttered a superintendent at a town meeting recently, in an unguarded moment. If you do the math, it is easy to see why.

Leaving aside the question of whether funding privately run schools with public dollars is in the public interest — and the Washington State Supreme Court ruled last fall it is not — take the example of an historically well-funded school district, Amherst Regional.

With almost $1.1 million this year following 90 secondary students to nearby charters — an average of 15 students per upper grade — 37 staff positions were cut over the last three years to balance the budget. That’s teachers, paraeducators, administrators, custodians.

In recent years, computer instruction and phys. ed. were cut from the middle school. High-school class sizes, historically in the low 20s, are now up to 30 students. Delayed maintenance runs into the hundreds of thousands. Several world languages have been eliminated, while, in the next town over, an immersion-language charter school is expanding.

And every year, the belt-tightening continues. Facing an anticipated funding gap of up to $2.3 million over the next three years, the district has proposed closing the middle school and consolidating all upper grades in the high school.

Amherst joins almost every school district in the state in attempting to compensate for the millions of dollars drained from local budgets to feed the needs of an auxiliary school system: Boston: $119 million this year to charters, Holyoke: $9.5 million, Springfield, $31 million.

And these are the sums owed after the tuition moratorium that the state allows when charter obligations increase — a modest reprieve which does little except allow a year in which to plan ahead for the next round of budget cuts.

Here’s the math: If charter-bound students happened to leave in tidy groups of 25 — it would also help if each group had similar abilities, grade-levels, and interests — then a neighborhood school could consider firing a teacher every time this imaginary, homogenous cohort left.

But 25 students leaving Amherst Regional take $303,000 with them, five times a $60,000 mid-range teacher’s salary. For every five children — a fraction of a class — who go to charter schools from a district with a relatively low $12,000 charter assessment, a teacher’s salary goes with them. Or another art or phys. ed. or language program

But district assessments vary widely, and, if you happen to live in Provincetown, your town pays $97,000 this year in charter tuition for just three students. Three students, well more than one teacher’s salary.

Meanwhile, the majority of the costs of running a school remain essentially fixed: maintenance, administration, nursing, utilities, advising. The charter-funding formula ignores the basic economic principle that tells us that the cost to educate one or 10 more or less students is almost nil: a “marginal” amount, and thus neighborhood schools realize only minimal savings when a student leaves.

Yet community-based schools are billed an average and not marginal tuition rate for each charter-bound student from their district, and, each year, school districts ponder how to further trim already bare-bones budgets without completely destroying their schools in the process.

Nevertheless, a pro-charter business-backed coalition will be spending $18 million this year to convince Massachusetts residents that local schools don’t miss the money when charter-school numbers increase.

Facing these kinds of difficult math problems, neighborhood schools are closing, like in Boston, which closed or consolidated 18 community-based schools in 2010-2011. It is not too big a stretch to imagine that many of our local schools, especially in urban areas, could ultimately be replaced by charters.

Such as in New Orleans, where only 9 percent of students have the choice to continue to attend a local, neighborhood school with a democratically elected school board. Or Detroit where 55 percent of students attend charters, or Washington, D.C., where it is 44 percent. In Boston almost one-quarter of students attend charter schools.

Just as with district schools, there are, of course, some successful — as well as mediocre — charter schools. It is reasonable to debate whether taxpayers value supporting a publicly funded subset of private schools within the public system and to examine whether charters’ claims for superiority hold up under scrutiny.

It is not reasonable to destroy neighborhood schools along the way.

If Massachusetts truly wants an auxiliary school system, then separate the funding for neighborhood-based and charter schools, raise taxes to pay for the added costs of supporting additional schools with their own millions in overhead costs, and leave district budgets alone. The math simply does not work as it is.

Nancy Grossman works as a municipal treasurer and served on the Leverett Finance Committee. Her son attends Amherst Regional High School. She may be reached via the contact page at


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