Those following the charter school debate in Arkansas should read this piece by the American Prospect’s Gabrielle Gurly about a parallel fight in Massachusetts, where the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently authorized an expansion of charter schools in Boston to accommodate over 1,000 more students. A push for a ballot initiative to remove a statewide cap on charters is also underway.
That should sound familiar to Little Rock. The equivalent state-level panel that authorizes charters in Arkansas, the state Board of Education, last week gave final approval to the expansion plans of two Little Rock charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy. EStem and LISA will add some 3,000 seats over the coming years, which will inevitably impact the Little Rock School District, just as charter growth in Massachusetts is eating into Boston Public Schools. Like the LRSD, Boston Public Schools is majority-minority and is facing substantial budget cuts. To sum up the parallels:
Today, Bay State superintendents, local school committee members, and even some public officials who support charters warn that an unprecedented expansion by way of the ballot box would further erode the resources available for the schools that the vast majority of students attend and would threaten the very schools that they were supposed to help save. Many fear that Massachusetts school districts have reached a tipping point that a sudden, substantial increase in charter schools could easily upend.
One big difference between Massachusetts and Arkansas schools, though is how they’re funded. Like in Arkansas, the bulk of school funding in Mass. comes from a state-facilitated, partial redistribution of local tax dollars, with additional state funds on top, in the form of a per-pupil amount of “foundation funding.” In Massachusetts, if a student departs a traditional school for a charter school, the traditional district is required to pay the charter directly, Gurly says:
When a student leaves a school district to attend a charter, that district transfers a tuition payment based on a district’s average per-student expenditure. To mitigate the financial impact of this transfer, a district receives a 100 percent tuition reimbursement from the state the first year but only 25 percent in each of the next five years.
The funding situation is not quite as dire in Arkansas. Make no mistake: A net transfer of students from the LRSD to eStem still results in the LRSD losing money eventually. But charters don’t throttle district budgets quite as brutally, because Arkansas schools are funded based on their previous year’s enrollment, explained Richard Abernathy of the state association for school superintendents.
“If a kid attended [the LRSD] last year, Little Rock will be funded for that kid [this year], period,” Abernathy told me, even if that student leaves and goes to a charter or another district. “But next year, if that student stays in the charter, then the district would lose that money.” (Schools that see a growth in enrollment over the course of a year may also receive additional “growth funding” for the cost of educating those new students. And, if a district loses enrollment over the course of two years, it can receive a limited amount of “declining enrollment funding” to help cushion the blow somewhat.)
Does that mean Arkansas charter schools don’t negatively impact traditional districts? Absolutely not. Budgets are still affected by the loss of students, even if it takes two years to kick in. But more importantly, the kids who tend to be left behind in district schools tend to be kids that face more disadvantages than their peers. They’re more likely to be from poor families, more likely to have learning disabilities and more likely to have limited English proficiency.
That looks much the same in Massachusetts as it does in Arkansas. Gurly writes of a district in northeastern Mass., Triton Regional School District, which serves 2,700 students in coastal communities. “Last year, the district transferred nearly $630,000 in tuition for 51 students who attended Newburyport’s River Valley Charter School,” she says. “The final budget included $1.5 million in cuts to a nearly $40 million budget.” But just as worrying:
Triton has shed a few hundred students over the past several years, but the enrollment decline masks an even more worrying indicator in the predominantly white district, which directly impacts the district’s budget. The numbers of special-needs students with the greatest challenges have increased. Those children are the most expensive to educate since they require specialized programs and services. District schools continue to grapple with the difficulties posed by having fewer dollars and higher percentages of students who require specialized education. Traditional public schools must provide instruction for every student. Charters, however, are not required to accept the same proportion of low-income or special-needs students that the district schools typically enroll.
“Charters filter out certain kids,” says Christopher Lubienski, a University of Illinois education professor. Low-income students who attend charters “tend to be the advantaged of the disadvantaged,” he says. “The poorest kids and the kids with the most costly special needs still go to public schools.”
A 2015 Massachusetts Association of School Committees study found that although charters do enroll some challenging groups like English-language learners, they are not doing so at the same rates as traditional public schools. Bay State charters also continue to under-enroll poor students, while children with more profound types of disabilities were also under-enrolled or not enrolled at all.