Study fuels debate over monetary impact of charters in public education

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BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – As charter school expansion proponents pointed Wednesday to the findings of a report published by a New York-based conservative think tank as evidence that charters actually benefit traditional public schools, opponents slammed the report as another case of Wall Street trying to dictate policy in Massachusetts.

The Manhattan Institute on Wednesday released a report that concluded charter school enrollments “effectively” increase statewide per-pupil district spending by about $85 million each year, and that there is “little evidence in Massachusetts that charter schools harm traditional district schools.”

Great Schools Massachusetts, the group formed to promote the expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts, said the report should put to rest the “blatant and willful lies” from charter opponents that charter schools siphon funding away from traditional public schools.

“This study, grounded by indisputable facts, clearly demonstrates that public charter schools have led to $85 million more in public education funding,” Eileen O’Connor, spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, said in a statement. “Voters deserve to be told the truth – and the truth is that Question 2 will increase public education funding and give parents more opportunity to choose the best school for their kids.”

Question 2 on the November ballot would allow state officials to grant licenses for up to 12 additional charter schools each year, regardless of existing district-by-district caps.

Steve Crawford, spokesman for the group opposing the pro-charter ballot question, said the report was “bought and paid for by the same Wall Street billionaires who are funding Question 2.”

“The Manhattan Institute report … quarrels with state data showing that 231 local school districts will lose more than $450 million to charter schools this year,” the Save Our Public Schools spokesman said in a statement. “Right-wing think tanks can fiddle with the numbers all they want, but Massachusetts parents and educators see the impact of this financial drain in classrooms every day: schools without librarians, larger class sizes, school buses eliminated, and other serious cuts. Schools across the state can’t afford to cut any deeper.”

The report’s author, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Max Eden, conceded in the report that charter school enrollment does have a negative impact on state education aid for affected school districts, but said the benefit is manifested in per-pupil spending.

“Even as charter enrollment means a decline in net Chapter 70 aid — that is, the money that follows students to charter schools minus the state reimbursement to school districts for those students — it also represents a significant increase in per-pupil spending,” Eden wrote.

School administrators and charter opponents have argued that when a student leaves for a charter school, the school system’s funding decreases but its expenses do not, resulting in a loss of revenue. While the state does have a forumla that offers reimbursement over six years for children that leave district schools for charters, that payment schedule in recent years has not always been fully funded.

Still, Great Schools Massachusetts maintains that those reimbursements — even while not always fully funded by the state — have put $236 million over the past five years in the traditional public school system that wouldn’t have otherwise been available. That funding arrives on top of regular state aid, which charter supporters argue is still being used to educate children in public charter schools.

Eden, in the Manhattan Institute report, wrote that if district administrators had more flexibility to reduce costs by making structural changes at the school — like renegotiating labor agreements or contracts with outside vendors — “charter enrollment would present a clearer win-win proposition.”

“But because of the constraints that district leaders face, one can’t necessarily conclude that the per-pupil increases yield a clear benefit,” Eden wrote. “One can, however, conclude that the exclusive focus on net funding under Chapter 70 presents an incomplete picture of the financial effects of charter enrollment and that their impact on district schools is less dire than charter critics may allege.”

Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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