November 8, 2016; Boston Globe

On Tuesday, Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly not to lift the cap on charter schools, preventing the growth or expansion of current charter school networks across the state. The expectation pre-election was that the final numbers would be closer but perhaps that was informed by the overwhelming amount of money that had been poured into the “yes” side.

The issue has been a very divisive one in this election season. Spending on the campaigns for and against the cap broke spending records across the state.

The charter school issue is a complicated one. It touches on issues of race, class, taxes, redlining, government size, testing standards, and union strength, among others. There are currently over 30,000 students on the waitlists for 70-odd charter schools in the Massachusetts, out of nearly a million students enrolled in the district for the 2015–2016 school year.

The students on wait lists are overwhelmingly in poor minority areas of Boston, where charters tend to outperform traditional public schools. In the suburbs, where the cap has not yet been hit, charters do not have this same performance advantage. (Results vary across the country.) Studies have shown that charters serve a particularly disadvantaged population. Many of them have explicit social justice agendas. John King, U.S. Secretary of Education, founded a Massachusetts charter network called Roxbury Prep that works to empower racial minorities to improve their communities.

This overt commitment to social justice is one thing that makes charters stand out from public schools; many charters view themselves as instruments of change as well as centers of learning. Interestingly, the NAACP opposes privately funded charter schools, believing that equitable public education is a better solution.

The way that charters are funded in Massachusetts is another part of what makes them unique. In Massachusetts, all charters are nonprofit organizations and they receive funding from foundations or individuals the same way most nonprofits do. In addition, they receive a fixed sum of money from municipalities based on the number of students they have; the money follows the child, wherever they go. (This varies by district, but in Boston, it averages about $15,000.)

George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and other conservative politicians have supported this “money follows the child” policy, saying it gives parents a choice. Opponents to this funding system say that school costs do not follow a per-student formula: Whether a school has 40 students or 400, it still needs a principal and a cafeteria; whether a math class has 15 kids or 35, it still needs a teacher. In an effort to keep traditional public schools from suffering sudden funding drops as money follows students to charter schools, the state runs a scaled aid program, whereby it reimburses schools for the money they lose for a few years. Unfortunately, state budget shortfalls have meant that in recent years, the money did not come through, and Boston was forced to move money from other parts of its municipal budget to make up the difference.

The other thing that makes charters unique is the greater degree of autonomy they exercise with respect to things like curriculum, teacher salaries, and disciplinary policy. Charter school teachers do not belong to unions, and schools are not obligated to follow the Common Core or any other district curriculum. Charter students still have to take all the same state tests as traditional public school students, but what other exams or standards they follow is up to each individual school, the same way it would be in a private school.

The lack of union membership for charter teachers is one of the things that magnified this fight during the election. The Massachusetts Federation of Teachers has vocally opposed lifting the charter cap. Charters argue that policies like teacher tenure are detrimental to student welfare and inefficient when it comes to cost. Opponents argue that non-union teachers are overworked and that the lack of certified teachers is detrimental to students. (Charter teachers, like private school teachers, are not required to have teaching degrees or certifications.) Charter teachers are paid, on average, about $20,000 less than public school teachers. They do tend to be younger, but they also tend to teach more classes and work longer hours and longer school years. Charters suffer a high teacher turnover rate, which is partly attributed to “burnout.”

Many have said that the state’s focus should be on strengthening traditional public schools. We hope that is where the focus will be now that the charter cap has been maintained.—Erin Rubin