Moving letter about Question 2 by Cambridge Senator Pat Jehlen

Posted in entirety below:

Dear Neighbor,

“What changes do you want to see in charter schools?”
I sometimes hear this from people who know I’m against Question 2, which would allow for unlimited expansion of charter schools without changing anything about them or their funding.
Question 2 is an up or down proposition, but it’s never good to be the “Party of No.”  Actually, the Senate passed a bill last spring called the “RISE Act” (because everything has to be an acronym).  It would have allowed for charter school expansion with critical changes in the way charters are approved and operate.  I was one of the senators who helped write the bill, and agree with almost all of it.
I was disappointed in the Charter School Association’s response. They didn’t say, “We’re okay with this provision, but not that one.” They immediately rejected the entire bill.
Here are its main provisions, which show the ideas Senators have, not just about charter schools, but about improving education for all children.

All children deserve a good education

The 1993 Education Reform Act didn't just create charter schools and state standards.  The most important provision increased state aid by $1.2 billion a year, distributed in a way that moved us toward more equalized spending.  Three studies of MA school finance reform in the 1990s found that achievement of students in previously low-spending districts went up.  (At the time there were no high-stakes for schools and teachers based on tests, and there were few charters.)

For 7 years we kept the promise of moving toward equality.  But since 2000 state funding has fallen far behind the costs of health care and special education.  I served on the Foundation Budget Review Commission.  We found that we're short-changing schools by a billion dollars a year.  Low-income communities can't make up their losses from local property taxes.  We are now among the states with the greatest inequality between school districts (and the greatest income inequality).

Schools labeled as "failing" are mostly in those low-income communities. 

MCAS scores correlate almost 90% with income.

The lowest income students attend schools with the least adequate funding, which are labeled the "lowest performing."
The "lowest performing" districts have twice as high a cap on charter school tuition, and would be targeted for unlimited charter school expansion under Question 2.

Giving all students a fair chance requires more state aid, distributed fairly, not separating out a few students and ignoring the needs of others.

In contrast, the Senate "RISE" bill allows for raising the cap on charter school tuition payments in "low-performing" districts at the same time, and dependent on, progress toward equalizing and adequate funding of all schools. 

Here's more on the Foundation Budget Report

Decisions about local budgets should be made locally and democratically

Charters are granted by the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The Board says it can't consider the effect of a new charter on other children in the district.  

School committees have limited resources.  When they have to send more money to charter schools, they have to cut other programs and/or close schools.  For example,
five years ago, people in Somerville learned that, if a new charter were successful here, our school system would lose so much money that we would have to close a school.  Some families would gain a new choice, but others would lose the school they had chosen and loved.  That decision would not be made by locally elected and accountable school committee members, who have to consider the needs of all children.  It would be made by an appointed board, whose members say the law doesn’t allow them to consider the effects of their decisions on other children.  

Most of the money in school budgets comes from local property taxes.  Giving the state board the power to spend local money is an unfunded mandate and taxation without representation.

The Senate bill allows school committees to establish and pay for charter schools.  If the state Board approves a charter without community approval, it would be paid for by state appropriation.  This is what 13 other states do. 

Charter schools should be open to all children

Charter schools don't have to admit students who seek to enroll during second half of the school year, or in their upper grades.  This makes it easier to create a consistent school culture, but it denies some students their choice, and makes charters very different from district schools. It’s not a model district schools can adopt; otherwise we would have thousands of children unable to attend school. Boston Public Schools educate 4,000 homeless children.    

The Senate bill requires that charter schools accept students whenever they sign up.  

Of the 5 schools with the highest suspension rates in MA, 3 are charter schools, with Roxbury Prep giving out-of-school suspension to 40% of students.

The Senate bill would not allow renewal of charters with high out-of-school suspension rates.

Many charter schools have high attrition rates: in some schools, fewer than half the 9th graders graduate in four years. 

The Senate bill would not allow renewal of charter schools with high attrition rates.

Charter Boards should reflect their communities

A recent report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that 31% of charter boards are composed of members from the corporate/financial sector and that only 16% of charter board trustees in Massachusetts are parents.  Significant parent representation on charter boards is largely confined to schools that serve predominantly White students.  Recently, KIPP, which runs schools in Boston and Lynn, held its board meeting in Dover.

The Senate bill requires charter boards of trustees to include a member of the school committee from the sending district, 25% (or at least two) elected parent representatives, a teacher representative, and one elected student representative.

What about those waitlists?
Charter proponents say there are 32,600 students on waitlists.  But 9700 of them applied more than 2 years ago, and didn't re-apply since then.  And the number includes 3500 on waitlists for Horace Mann charters, which are run by the school district and not subject to the tuition cap.  The waitlists for district schools in Boston are larger than those for charter schools.  Almost 1000 students are waitlisted for BPS' Snowden Academy.
Meanwhile 1700 children in Boston are waitlisted for BPS' preschool -- a program proven to reduce the achievement gap. 

The Senate bill requires charter waitlists to expire at the end of the school year.

Two years ago, Sen. Ken Donnelly and I wrote an op ed, which concluded:

"Today, charter schools are promoted not as collaborators with public schools, but as competitors in a marketplace where test scores take the place of profits. In this market, there are rewards for schools that can avoid students who are likely to score low...
If we keep raising the cap on charter schools, more district schools will go out of business, concentrating students who face the biggest challenges in a shrinking number of district schools while extra resources go to the charters...

Let us...incorporate the best ideas from all schools to educate all of our children, not only to score high on standardized tests, but to develop into responsible and capable adults, ready to take their places in a complex world.

Let’s keep our eyes on 100 percent of our students, not 18, or 19, or 23 percent of them."