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October 07, 2016

Headlines around the Commonwealth this week touted the new Mass Taxpayers Foundation study on charter schools. “Mass Taxpayers group knocks claim charter schools drain resources,” writes the Herald. “Charters haven’t been a drain on traditional schools, watchdog group finds,” claims the Globe. “Focusing on per-pupil spending, Report says Charters Don’t Hurt District Schools,” argues WBUR.

Intrigued by the headlines, I decided to download and read the full report myself.  After reading the report, I’ve come up with a few headlines myself that I believe more accurately reflect the findings in the report. 

Full disclosure here: I understand the position of proponents of the charter school cap expansion—I have friends who sit on charter school boards, and I myself have given speeches at local charter schools.  But I am also a School Committee and union member so I will be voting against ballot question 2.  That having been said, my focus here is not on the merits of the ballot question, but on the claims put forward in the Mass Taxpayers report and the reporting about that analysis, which seems to have been largely ripped from the press release issued by the groups as opposed to (you know) actually reading the report.

Alternative Headline 1: Public Schools Equally Hurt By Charters, Vocational Schools, and School Choice.  In Part 4 of the report (on pages 13-15), the foundation develops a hypothetical example of three districts, each sending 5 students to a charter school, a vocational school, or a school choice school.  They claim “the end results are remarkably similar” (14) in that in all three cases, the sending districts end up with about the same amount of money (or to be more accurate, the charter and choice districts do, but the vocational districts do not) after losing 5 students.  But what they fail to note in that all three cases, each district ends up with about 3% less money overall. Per-pupil spending remains similar, but the district has less money overall.  While that may be proportionate to the decline in enrollment, it is not proportionate to the decline in costs in those districts as they still need to pay for buildings, personnel (no – they don’t save on teachers because they haven’t lost enough students to reduce teaching staff), etc.  In other words, costs decline at a slower rate than enrollment.  In the real world, many districts have stepped up to fill this gap with other money.  But as Mayor Walsh has noted, most cities cannot afford to do this indefinitely.

Furthermore, the study just reports year 1 data in its hypothetical example.  In subsequent years, state reimbursement for charter students declines precipitously; as such, the charter district will be worse off than the other districts.  These numbers aren’t presented by the Foundation though.  Instead, they simply note, “these scenarios being to diverge as the charter reimbursements phase out” (15).  So perhaps Alternative Headline 2 might be: Charter Schools Hurt District Funding After First Year, Study Finds but Fails to Report.

My proposition for Alternative Headline 3: Finding Locates Study.  Reading the report, it really seems to me that the Foundation started with a conclusion, and then figured out a way to study the problem so as to support their claim.  For instance, the Foundation notes that they have only focused on Chapter 70 funding (23), but it is important to note that this is not the bone of contention for opponents.  Rather, a main focus has been on the effects on district budgets.  I’d like to quote at length from the Foundation report to show just how little they engage with this concern:

“The districts most affected by charter enrollments tend to be poorer urban ones, their perennially tight-stretched resources made tauter by the impact of a server recession and parlous recovery on state contributions and local tax bases…District budgets, heavily weighted toward personnel, may be extraordinarily difficult to cut (at least without severe damage) because of collective bargaining constraints and the fact that so many employees fulfill specialized professional roles.  The analysis presented here is based on the principles embedded in the formula, and makes no attempt to address budgetary issues at the district level” (23)

TLDR version: we’re not going to engage with the one of the key concerns of charter school expansion opponents. 

Lastly, while most of this post has focused on the report itself, I also want to single out the reporting here.  It appears that most reporting on this study draws almost directly from the press release issued by the Mass Taxpayers Foundation.  I have yet to find an article where the reporter carefully read the study and identified issues with the report.  Instead, most accounts quote the press release and then check in with those opposed to the expansion for an alternative take, a frustratingly common practice in reporting these days. As such, I have one last Alternative Headline to propose: We Expected More.

charter schools, ballot issues

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