Parents in Boston and other Massachusetts cities are waiting to see if a bill that would extend greater flexibilities to underperforming district schools and lift the cap on charter public schools in low-performing districts makes it out of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee by the March 19 deadline.
Legislators have cited the financial impact of charters on local school districts as a rationale for freezing the growth of these high performing public schools. But when families choose to send their children to charter schools, the funding follows those children, because the districts are no longer responsible for their education. The state recognizes that it takes time to realize savings when students enroll in charters, and provides six years of full or partial reimbursement — 100 percent the first year a student enrolls and 25 percent in each of the next five years. The state funded only 62 percent of its obligation this year and should return to full funding of this account.
Charter public schools educate more than 7,600 Boston children, but the transfer of state education funds to charter schools has not directly affected financial support for the Boston Public Schools. Over the last five years, the city’s School Department budget has increased by 12.3 percent compared to the total increase of all other city departments of 4.1 percent. The superintendent’s recommended fiscal 2015 School Department budget represents a 3.8 percent increase, while all other departments are expected to prepare budgets with a 1 percent decrease.
The city has maintained a policy of dedicating 35 percent of total revenues available for operations to the School Department, which has minimized the financial impact of the charter transfer, and has required the city to apply more of its own resources to the School Department budget.
The School Department’s recommended budget for the next school year is $973.3 million, an increase of $35.9 million or 3.8 percent, mostly to fund $29.2 million in negotiated salary and step increases. Reaching a balanced budget required cost reductions of $64 million involving difficult decisions. However, funding for charter schools was not the cause of the Boston Public Schools budget cuts. In Fiscal 2014, $108.7 million in state education funds were reallocated from the Boston Public Schools to charters, and the city received $22.1 million in reimbursement from the state. The $87 million net loss reflects the loss of 7,600 students and the expenses that went with them. BPS budget issues are the result of costs that continue to rise as revenue from several important sources continues to decline.
Chapter 70 state education aid for Boston of $209.4 million in fiscal 2014 is up less than one percent this year, and has actually declined by more than five percent since fiscal 2009. Over the last 12 years, Chapter 70 aid increased by less than two percent, as inflation increased by 31.2 percent.
External funds for the Boston schools are also substantially down. Federal grants are expected to decrease by $32 million in fiscal 2015, the third consecutive year of reductions.
The Legislature failed to fully fund charter reimbursement in fiscal 2014, short-changing Boston by $10.3 million. As noted above, the Legislature should fully fund the reimbursement rather than use it as a debating point not to lift the cap on charters.
Legislators have also noted budget reductions for several Boston schools, but these cuts are due to declines in student enrollment, not charter funding. The Boston Publics Schools originally budgeted for an increase of 1,024 students in grades K-2, but only 382 students enrolled. School enrollment declines based on more accurate estimates for next year are causing corresponding reductions in these individual school budgets.
The heated debate over charters has taken attention away from other important provisions in the legislation that would improve district schools. It would extend to Level 3 underperforming schools the tools to succeed by empowering superintendents to extend the school day, open and amend collective bargaining agreements on an accelerated basis, and retain only high-performing teachers and administrators. Level 3 schools represent the lowest 20 percent in terms of student achievement statewide. These flexibilities were granted to Level 4 chronic underperforming schools in 2010. The urgency for this reform in Boston is due to the fact that today, 60 of Boston’s 127 schools are designated Level 3 schools and a majority of Boston’s students attend those schools.
The fiscal arguments against lifting the charter cap are over-stated. As members of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Education decide whether to allow legislation that would lift the cap on charter public schools and extend flexibilities to Level 3 schools to go forward, they should understand that charters are not the cause of the Boston Public Schools’ complex budget woes.
Samuel R. Tyler is president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.