Ballot Question 2: Lifting the Charter School Cap

There is no question that this upcoming election can be considered high stakes. Whomever our nation elects to serve as our commander in chief will likely have a ripple effect on policy that will last for generations to come, which is why national elections draw higher than average turnout to polls. The same can also be said for ballot questions, initiatives typically led by public interest groups that manage to avoid the typical, slow legislative process that other bills do and letting voters decide on Election Day by popular vote. There is one ballot question in particular, The Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools, commonly known as Question 2, that has brought a lot of debate and has legislators split on the issue. While Mass Mentoring Partnership continues to advocate to embed developmental relationships in school settings, we felt obliged to dissect this complicated issue around Question 2, particularly because it  feels that some of the more important aspects of the arguments, on both sides, have become lost while voters are inundated with advertisements with misleading or inaccurate information.

We at MMP want voters to be keenly aware that the choice they make on Question 2 should be weighed with great responsibility, and the decisions by our fellow voters should be an informed one. Massachusetts voters must ensure that young people will receive a quality education, with equitable access to good schools and teachers who can focus on solid curriculum as well as provide wraparound social-emotional supports for students. Voters should also come to the polls with the understanding that whether or not the state allows for charter school expansion, our school districts and the educational outcomes of students across the Commonwealth will be impacted by this vote.

The establishment of charter schools back in 1993 was intended to close the achievement gap. There is some evidence to suggest that it has as well as evidence that suggests that it has made the gap larger. We want to encourage you all to conduct your own research about charter schools, their success, and Q2 before you go to the polls on Tuesday, November 8th. 

See below for a more in-depth analysis of Question 2...  

WHAT EXACTLY WOULD QUESTION 2 DO IF PASSED?

If passed, Question 2 would allow for up to 12 new charter schools annually to be approved or for enrollment expansion in existing charter schools beginning in January 2017. If more than 12 applications are filed, then priority will be given to school districts with students performing in the bottom 25% of all state assessments. There will be no change to the funding formula, meaning that no additional funding will be added to public school budgets. Currently, there are 78 charter schools operating across the state. These schools are privately run and publicly funded. There are currently 32,000 students on wait lists for enrollment in charter schools, with 18,081 of them being new applicants. (2016 Massachusetts Department of Education Charter School Enrollment Data Report)  

According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, a charter school is officially defined as “a public school that is governed by a board of trustees and operates independently of any school committee under a five year charter granted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). These schools have the freedom to organize around a core mission, curriculum, theme, and/or teaching method and to control its own budget and employment of teachers and staff. In return for this freedom, a charter school must attract students and produce positive results within five years or its charter will not be renewed.”

Those opposed to Q2 have argued that because charter schools operate independently from their district public schools, they are essentially taking money from district school budgets and adversely affecting public schools. Additionally, charter schools can suspend students virtually without any due process, in an attempt to establish a “safe space.” Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, a Q2 opponent, says this practice is dangerous because the disciplinary measures can discourage students from learning. Many organizations involved with juvenile justice are also opposing the ballot question for similar reasons.

Those in favor of expansion note that in Massachusetts charter schools traditionally have higher rankings in standardized test scores than their public school counterparts.  With longer days and extended school years, charter school students have increased learning time, complete college at a higher rate, and require less remedial course work. Charter schools have been proven to provide opportunities for students that are a part of low income communities where traditional public schools are underperforming. Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents some of Boston’s most impoverished neighborhoods, has come out in favor of the ballot initiative because of the opportunities these schools present for families who struggle to find good schools in their low-income communities.

WHAT'S AT STAKE

But the arguments on each side are far more complex when you delve into statistics and facts. For example, charter schools have a lower attrition rate, meaning more students are staying in charter schools than in districts like Boston Public Schools. However, it could be argued that in some situations that the attrition rate is low because of the admittance of more students to make up for the ones that the charter schools have lost. The low attrition rate from year to year does not mean that the same cohort of students stay in the same grades or graduate together.

The limitation of the current cap on charter schools is proving to be a disadvantage for school districts that are in high need. Districts such as Boston, Lawrence, Fall River, and Chelsea cannot expand their enrollment or open up new charter schools, while other districts, such as Amherst and Northampton, who are known to have higher quality district public schools and do not need as many charter schools, still have not met their cap. Since charter schools are subject to annual inspections and success analysis, they can be closed if they are not upholding state standards. Underperforming public schools, on the other hand, can receive additional state aid and be placed under receivership.

Charter schools serve a significantly high number of black, Latino, and low-income students, and conversely they have also been criticized for having a significantly lower number of high-need students, English Language Learners (ELL), and students experiencing homelessness than district public schools. Under the current state law, charter schools are not required to accept students who have disabilities so significant that they would need to be placed in separate residential or day programs. However, these students may enroll in public schools if the schools have enough resources to serve them. Similarly, the state law creates barriers for recently settled immigrants to attend charter schools by establishing restrictive enrollment practices (Boston Globe, 10/31/2016).

Charter schools are funded per-pupil. So if a student were to leave a public school and transfer into a charter school, the funds would follow that student. However, reimbursements would be given to that public school to compensate for their lack of funding. Additionally, charter schools do not receive funds from property taxes or other locally generated revenues, like district public schools, but they can apply for federal funding. One thing to make note of is that district public schools are not reimbursed on a dollar for dollar ratio when they lose a student to a charter school. District public schools are only reimbursed based on the tuition increase (the amount of money sent to charter schools on behalf of district schools to fund students’ education) from year to year. So if the public school tuition increased from $10 million to $11 million, the school will only be reimbursed $1 million. This presents a problem when district public schools are allocating more of their funds to charter schools than they are receiving in reimbursement.  It creates budget tension and tends to strip resources from students attending district public schools. 

FUNDING THE DEBATE

So far, millions of dollars have been raised for political campaigns and advocacy for both sides of the issue. In total, over $12.6 million has been spent on campaigning and advertisements from both sides, with $9.3 million from the proponents and $4.3 million from the opponents. Both sides of the ballot question have high-profile individuals supporting their causes.  Governor Charlie Baker, a loyal supporter of Q2 and charter schools, was recently featured in an advertisement stating “public charter schools give parents a choice and are a pathway to success for these kids. If you like your school, Question 2 won't affect you, but Question 2 will change the future for thousands of kids who need your help.” Marty Walz, a former state representative and former chair of the Legislative Education Committee, argues in support of charter schools stating that “parents want more choices, parents are desperate for great schools, and they’re being denied that choice,” and the lift on the cap would provide them more choices. Other groups who are in support of Q2 are Democrats for Education Reform, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (Ballotpedia.com).

Senator Elizabeth Warren said she is ”very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh staunchly criticized that Q2 “would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts — not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them.” Other groups opposed to Q2 are the State Democratic Party, the Teacher’s Unions, and the NAACP New England Branch. Additionally, roughly 330 school communities and organizations have gone on record against Q2. See the complete list here. 

WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?

No additional funds will be allocated to schools if Q2 were to pass, which means that there will be no raise in taxes for voters. However, there are still fiscal consequences to both charter and district public schools if Q2 were to pass. According to the preliminary Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there are already problems with the current funding formula. Currently, it does not support the needs of all students, specifically higher-needs students such as the deaf, blind, and autistic. Again, if Q2 were to pass, resources could be taken away from these high need students in both district public schools and existing charter schools. However, since there seems to be an agreement on both sides about the current funding formula, Q2 could create an opportunity to re-evaluate the current budget model.

The opportunity to have 12 new charter schools implemented annually means that thousands of children could be provided with high quality education and access to resources that they may not have had before. This bill is designed to target school districts that are underperforming , such as Boston, Chelsea, and Holyoke. It has been speculated that more charter schools could create added competition with district public schools, forcing underperforming public schools to improve their education.

We at MMP want to emphasize that this is a difficult and complex ballot question, and there are benefits and consequences to the charter school system. There is no question that Massachusetts charter schools have provided incredible opportunities for some students across the state. We have been deemed one of the highest performing charter systems in the country. Students are given a chance to engage in new interests and learning opportunities, and they often perform well on exams and national assessments. Many graduate and lead successful lives. However, charter schools have been criticized for creating a two-tier system and operating too independently from district public schools, when they are supposed to collaborate and share best practices and models. Q2 would certainly grant opportunities to some of the most underserved students in Massachusetts, but under its current model and under the current funding method, it is possible that it could come at the price of other students still in district public schools.

We encourage you to get out and vote on November 8!

To learn more you can visit the following websites:

No on Question 2: saveourpublicschoolsma.com

Yes on Question 2: yeson2ma.com