Expanding the charter cap is gambling the taxpayer’s money
Imagine if the University of Massachusetts decides to construct a new and obscenely expensive dormitory on campus. Tuition rates skyrocket but the school assures students that the new dormitory halls will utilize the best architecture and design complete with air conditioning, central heating and a kitchen on every floor. All students have a chance to get into this dormitory, no matter their year.
Here’s the catch: The project is ambitious, both architecturally and financially. UMass administration is privately unsure that the budget will allow for all things promised and rumors begin to circulate that they may never open the dormitory. Regardless, there is still an obvious rise in tuition, even for students who remain in other dorms.
This situation is sure to raise doubt about how the University is deciding to appropriate money and rightly so. Why did the school embark on this ambitious project that may or may not result in a better UMass experience?
Charter schools explore the same question. How can we feel good about forcing public schools to bend over backward to fund charters if we are not positive they will achieve their goal of exploring new techniques to educate students while also providing a decent education? Charter schools are a high-risk, high-cost gamble with the taxpayer’s money.
The success of charter schools is uncertain, but its funding is far from it. My home town has seen the consequences of the poor funding firsthand: The Malden public school system, which is $2 million in debt, have been cutting costs to the bone, recently losing bus service to over 100 students across the city.
Meanwhile, the regional charter school, Mystic Valley, enjoyed a $10 million surplus in the budget as of 2009 and recently invested in a $4.4 million purchase of real estate to build an athletic center, adding to its real estate empire of two buildings, three houses and a fire station which they “lease to the city,” according to Boston.com.
This juxtaposition is incredible, but how can it happen? Massachusetts state law ordains that the school district will be reimbursed for paying the facility aids rate, which is the per-student price of school attendance, to the charter schools. But this is loosely enforced; charters do not have to reimburse the district for as long as six years, and even then the money may not be there. This budget formula forces public schools to “cut costs” first even though the net change of students going to charter schools is not enough to justify cutting classes of making real changes in spending.
In Malden’s case, the state has promised to pay back the school $8.4 million, but as of now only $1.4 million of that has been paid. The deficit is being put on the Malden community to make up for the losses.
It would be incorrect, however, to attribute the entire deficit on charters. If our schools were funded more organically, Malden’s schools may not be on the brink, but no doubt would the allowance of more charters create greater risk and disparity.
Proponents of the charter argue that by remaining a tuition-free and independent entity, these schools could create an environment of innovation to explore new policies and learning strategies. This is a well-intentioned experiment; change happens very slowly in public schools and even well-known flaws in public education are systematically ingrained in the public institution. Ideally, charters would be there to advise public schools and engage in mutualistic development.
But there is no way to verify that charters have the best interests of students in mind. The district school committee has absolutely no oversight of the school’s happenings and there is no system in place for charters to recommend what works to the public schools. In fact, results of the charter school experiment can be a secret if it so chooses.
Charter schools are expected to outperform public schools too and in theory, failure to do so would force them to close. The reality is disappointing even to a capitalist: a vast majority of charters close due to financial problems and administrative mismanagement, according to Contexts Magazine. Common reasons for closures include “low funding levels, low enrollment” and “operating costs higher than were sustainable.”
Even for those that successfully stay open, performance banks on two coin flips. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that only 25 percent of charter schools outperformed “traditional” public schools.
In other words, many of these charter schools are as uncertain as the analogous new UMass dormitory. Taxpayers’ money can lay waste for a swath of wrong reasons, including poor planning, money grabbing and even naiveté.
I do not want to demonize charter schools. Innovation is important and school policies are certainly limited in a way that demands room for nuance. But expanding a system that is severely flawed is not the way to go. Fixing our school budgeting system, particularly Chapter 70, should be our real mission. With more resources toward struggling schools like Malden and Boston, all schools can over perform the status quo.
Let’s get a new school funding system on the ballot for 2020 and make public education work for everyone. Say “No” on Question 2.
James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.