Superintendents contest charter school funding
Administrators seek more equitable aid formula
As talk brews about a new elementary charter school in Devens, some school officials in the region are calling for revisions to the state's method of financing charter schools, which they say is antiquated and inequitable.
Charter schools, a form of alternative schooling promoted as a way of challenging the state's public schools to improve, have been a longstanding controversy across Massachusetts. But with public school systems facing leaner fiscal times, the statewide debate about charter schools depleting districts' school aid is at an all-time high.
While not philosophically opposed to the idea of charter schooling, superintendents in Pepperell, Groton, Dunstable, Acton, and Boxborough say the method for financing them is an out-of-date system that unfavorably benefits charter schools, which don't face the same costs, such as busing.
Each year, these school districts lose students -- and state aid -- mostly to a nearby charter school in Devens, the Francis W. Parker Essential School. The school has 365 students in grades 7 to 12.
Funding for charter schools is based on a formula that takes into account a student's educational needs. For each child who attends a charter school, money from the state's main educational aid program, known as Chapter 70, is shifted from that child's original school district into the charter school.
Acton-Boxborough Superintendent Bill Ryan estimated that his district sees about $250,000 slip through its fingers each year to charter schools. The district loses an average of about $8,000 per student to charter schools, an amount similar to its per-pupil spending.
Ryan said the district also loses money when it tries to replace charter students with students from outside the district. The state gives back $5,000 for out-of-district students, known as school-choice students, resulting in a net financial loss, he said.
''I think giving parents a choice is terrific," Ryan said. ''The problem I have is with the funding formula."
Groton-Dunstable Superintendent Mary Jennings said her district is hit even harder, losing up to $400,000 on average. Jennings recently sent out a flier across Groton and Dunstable, urging residents to apply political pressure at the state level to change the formula.
The flier and its figures are disputed by Francis Parker administrators, however.
The flier contended that the district loses, on average, more than $9,000 in state aid per charter student. Francis Parker business manager Clare Jeannotte said the figure is closer to $8,000 and doesn't include money that the state began reimbursing to the towns this year to compensate for capital costs for public schools.
''A lot of districts think this comes as a hit to their Chapter 70," said Jeannotte. ''The reality is some of it comes back to the towns."
Jeannotte said the state already made several revisions to the charter school funding formula this fiscal year in order to level the playing field for public schools. One example is the reimbursements mentioned by Jeannotte. The state has traditionally shifted Chapter 70 money to charter schools for capital costs; now school districts get full or partial reimbursement for that money.
Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the department doesn't agree with superintendents on the issue. ''The priority should be to make sure the money follows the student," she said. ''We don't actually agree that there should be a limit on that."
Still, administrators and school officials want more changes.
The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents is asking legislators to limit Chapter 70 payments to charter schools to either $5,000 or to 75 percent of the total cost of educating charter students. Under the plan, the state would use money from other sources to make up the remaining cost of educating charter school students.
Pepperell's superintendent, James McCormick, who estimated that he loses about 65 students annually to nearby charter schools, not only wants to see the charter school funding better reflect district spending, but also wants a temporary moratorium on the creation of charter schools.
At the moment, the House of Representatives has proposed one change to the funding formula for charter schools for the fiscal 2006 budget, but the Legislature hasn't planned an overhaul of the law, according to legislative aides. The amendment would lower the amount of school aid to charter schools, if the state were unable to fully reimburse communities for a portion of some aid lost to charter schools.
Devens could soon face another charter school at the elementary level.
Michael Long, who recently resigned as chairman of the Devens Educational Advisory Committee, said the committee recently recommended that MassDevelopment, the agency overseeing redevelopment of the former Army base, accept a charter school.
Under a plan put forward by the advisory committee, an elementary school would open in 2006 and would operate for one year as a tax-funded public school. It would become a charter school in 2007.
Long, however, indicated that the charter school should have less of an impact on surrounding towns than Francis Parker. Devens residents would be given preference at the school, he said, whereas Francis Parker, which obtains its students through a lottery, is open to all surrounding communities.
''It is not the intention of [the committee] to take students away from surrounding communities," he said.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
"Never underestimate the power of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world; indeed, that is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
Read my blog, Charter Free PS15 at http://charter-free-ps15.blogspot.com/