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Thread: Charter schools come with a price

  1. #1
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    Default Charter schools come with a price

    The question of charter school funding raises its head from time to time. The short answer is that when Wayland students leave to attend a charter school, they do so at the expense of the local school budget and the local taxpayer (source: representative of the MA Department of Education's School Finance Office plus web sites cited at the end of this post). I'm passing no judgment on the value of charter schools, just stating the facts.

    An over-simplified example serves to illustrate the impact. Imagine a hypothetical local district with 25 students during the FY08 (2007-2008) school year. The total budget to educate those students is $250k, or $10k per student. Of that amount, $9k per student covers the cost of the teacher, the administration, other support staff, co-curricular activities (1 club and 1 team, in which 15 of the students participate), transportation (1 bus), and utilities. The remaining $1k per student pays for materials and supplies.

    In February of 2008, the schools put together a budget for the FY09 year. Ignoring inflation for the purpose of this example, that budget is for $250k. In March, one student notifies the district that he/she will be attending a charter school, dropping the local enrollment to 24. Because of the nature of fixed costs, the local district's expenses drop by only the $1k for materials and supplies.

    By law, the local district is obligated to pay a $10k tuition to the charter school. Because they can put the unneeded $1k towards that amount, they are only out a net of $9k, which must be cut from elsewhere in the budget.

    Fortunately for the local district, the law also provides for reimbursement from the state. In the first year of the student's charter school attendance (FY09), the reimbursement is 100%, or $10k. Now, the district is actually up $1k: $250k raised, $249k spent locally (no need to spend the $1k on materials and supplies, but the district still needs the teacher, the other staff, the co-curricular program, transportation, and utilities), $10k charter tuition, $10k reimbursement.

    Unfortunately for the local district, in the second year, the reimbursement drops to 60%. In the third year, it drops further, to 40%. Thereafter, there is no reimbursement.

    So, in year 2 of the student's charter school attendance (FY10), the math looks like this: $249k raised (the student was not planned for, so materials and supplies were not budgeted), $249k spent locally, $10k charter tuition, $6k charter reimbursement. The district is therefore out $4k for the year, and $3k cumulatively.

    In year 3 (FY11), the numbers are $249k raised, $249 spent, $10k tuition, $4k reimbursed: out $6k for the year, $9k cumulatively.

    In year 4 (FY12) and thereafter: $249k raised, $249k spent, $10k tuition, $0k reimbursed: out $10k for the year and $19k cumulatively (through FY12). Each additional year adds another $10k deficit.

    There are several wrinkles that potentially serve to lessen the impact on the local district. First, if the student attending the charter school has services that cost more than the $10k tuition, the local district sends only $10k. Second, if the student attending the charter school comes back to the local district after one or two years, the tuition goes away but the reimbursement (for 2 years, at 60% and 40%) inexplicably does not.

    According to the DOE, it would not surprise them that one or more districts may have encouraged students with special needs to leave the local district and attend a charter school. Upon learning about the reimbursement despite a student's return to the local district, I asked whether any districts have initiated a "study abroad" program (in which they would send students to a charter school for only a year so as to reap the ongoing reimbursement without ongoing tuition payments). I was told that to their knowledge, no one had yet suggested such an approach.

    [Added 5/2] In the 25 student example above, there is of course the chance that the "departing student" will trigger the reduction of a section. In that case, if no other adjustment were made, the savings would be greater than the $10k tuition. Note that over the past three years (FY06, FY07, and FY08), Wayland has 5-6 children attend charter schools.

    As always, if there are errors or confusing points in the information or analysis above, please do not hesitate to let me know.

    Additional information is available here:
    http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/qanda.html
    http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/charter/
    http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/charter...r_tuition.html
    http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/seslaw97/sl970046.htm
    http://www.masscharterschools.org/
    Last edited by Kim Reichelt; 09-24-2016 at 02:10 PM. Reason: Fix formatting

  2. #2
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    From necn.com:

    (Brad Puffer, NECN: Boston, MA) - The Conservatory Lab in Boston's Brighton neighborhood is one of more than 60 charter schools in Massachusetts. Independent public schools with their own Board of Trustees. But this year, this music focused school, became the first to have its teachers join a union. Previously all charter schools have operated without unions and union work rules.

    read more at the link above


    I wasn't sure if this was legal or not. Will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

  3. #3
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    There are some thought-provoking ideas tossed around in the NECN article.

    "Kevin Andrews, head of the Massachusetts Charter School Association. 'This is a Boston teachers union contract look how thick it is you need a PhD to get through it this isn't about education reform it's about stifling schools.'"

    It's a bit one-sided to say that unions and their contracts are about "stifling schools."

    "The school's board of trustees in a written statement said, 'We are concerned about the ability of the... Union to support the programmatic flexibility that is critical to the success of our charter school in delivering a rich and unique education to students.'"

    It's not clear to me what is meant by "flexibility." With one important exception that comes immediately to mind, I don't see union contracts being much in the way of flexibility. In Wayland, class size can be increased or decreased without running into contract limitations. Schools can be opened, closed, or reconfigured. Professional development can be provided in a multitude of areas. Team-teaching is permitted. Looping (having a teacher move through several grades with the same class) is permitted (although not practiced in Wayland).

    The exception I alluded to above is the ability to remove a teacher not performing satisfactorily. With current and foreseeable union contracts, this is not an option, and one that in theory works against the objective of improving education.

    Union contracts also typically specify the length of a school day, for instance. The "anti-flexibility" statement above may be alluding to the fact that a school administration could not length the school day without union agreement. What's not clear is whether Mr. Andrews is suggesting that schools should be able to change (presumably lengthen) the school day without teacher approval or salary increases.

    Andrews: "This is not going to stop the charter school movement in any way."

    I would certainly hope that he feels this way, but if true, undercuts his earlier anti-union/anti-contract sentiments.

    An 11/26 Boston Globe story on the same topic adds a few items missing from the NECN piece.

    "The [unionization] change comes at a perilous time for the movement, under a governor who does not support expanding the number of charters beyond the state-imposed cap and is seeking to create an alternative to the charter school model."

    It will be interesting to see what form these alternatives take. One idea that Governor Patrick has promoted is that of "Readiness Schools" with union employees overseen by local districts, but with more limited teacher contracts and aimed at incorporating positive aspects of charter schools.

    "[union] Officials say the teachers would reap benefits of an equitable pay scale more generous than most charter schools as well as gaining greater job security."

    One frequent criticism of unions is their higher teacher salaries, but these salaries still exist within a market. If anything, the conventional salaries at charter schools (and in many cases, private and parochial schools) are "below market" relative to the much larger number of public schools.

    "Charter schools generally operate under a merit pay system that rewards outstanding employees with bonuses and higher pay. Massachusetts teachers unions have fiercely resisted such a system, in which seasoned teachers could be paid less than newcomers, arguing that it could create a climate of favoritism."

    I like the idea of merit pay in schools, and am not convinced that "favoritism" would be any different than it is in the private workplace, where it generally takes the form of higher performers being more highly compensated. The Denver Public Schools are notable in their adoption of merit pay (see this relatively optimistic piece from the right-leaning Hoover Institution and this more balanced piece from Time Magazine).

  4. #4
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    A Boston Globe article reports on charter schools and the fact that they have fewer special needs and English Language Learner (ELL) students enrolled.

    Here are a few interesting quotes:

    Quote Originally Posted by Boston Globe
    a Globe analysis shows that charter schools in cities targeted by the proposal tend to enroll few special education students or English language learners.
    ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Boston Globe
    The figures highlight a long, divisive debate about charter school success that has grown louder in recent weeks: Are many charter schools achieving dazzling MCAS scores because of innovative teaching or because they enroll fewer disadvantaged students?
    To this last point, a Wayland resident frequently mentions Marlborough's Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA) in relation to the Wayland Public Schools. Despite AMSA's documented lower enrollment of challenged students, they do *not* "dazzle" on the MCA front relative to Wayland. Details here.

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