Diehl and Harper/My Turn: Our educational landscape

Last modified: 1/19/2016 5:37:13 PM

We are following closely the discussion about potential changes to the cap on charter schools. There is much room for debate about the value, impact, funding and accountability of charter schools, and we applaud the work of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and our local legislative delegation in carefully considering options and impacts. However, there is one key issue that is rarely mentioned. Charter schools have a disproportionate and negative impact on smaller and more rural school districts — including Greenfield and almost all of the other districts in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

The Collaborative for Educational Services (CES) and the superintendents of most of the school districts in Franklin and Hampshire counties have been examining the data about enrollment trends across both counties. We have also begun meeting with local legislators, most recently Sen. Benjamin Downing and Rep. Stephen Kulik, and have provided Sen. Rosenberg and other legislators representing the two counties with our data analysis.

Several key findings emerge from this data:

For over 10 years, we have had declining numbers of school-age children in the counties; we are losing about 220 per year in Hampshire County and 150 per year in Franklin County.

Overall, over 12 percent of students in both Franklin and Hampshire counties are in charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, or home schooling. This means only 88 percent of the shrinking school population are attending regular (non-charter) public schools — a big reason our districts are struggling financially.

Existing charter schools are already enrolling an average of 3 percent of the two counties’ students; the percent is over 5 percent in Northampton, Greenfield, Williamsburg, Cummington, Erving and Plainfield.

So how do charter schools impact our districts? First, charter schools have a significant and disproportionate financial impact in our relatively small municipal and regional districts. Many of the school districts in our counties have only one or two schools in a particular town or grade level, so our districts do not have the ability to offset the revenues lost to charter schools by reducing the number of grade-level classrooms or shuttering buildings. Second, given the declining numbers of school-age children in our region, and discussions about consolidation or regionalization, opening additional charter schools seems counter-productive. Third, charter (and private) schools have a disproportionate impact on the diversity of the student body. For example, charter schools in our region generally serve lower percentages of English Language Learners and students with special needs than the local districts do.

In addition, charter schools do not, for the most part, provide transportation. Given the relatively lower population density of our counties, fewer students live within walking distance of a charter school. The result is that children whose families do not have the means to provide transportation are excluded from charter schools located away from population centers. Clearly, we need laws and regulations about charter schools that take into account local conditions and are not based solely on what is appropriate for Boston and other urban centers.

In addition, the argument that more charter schools are needed to give parents more choices is only true if parents don’t have many choices. In fact, in addition to the students currently in existing charter and private schools, 11 percent of students in Franklin County and 6 percent in Hampshire County currently exercise School Choice to transfer to other districts. By comparison, fewer than 1 percent of students enrolled in Norfolk, Suffolk, or other eastern Massachusetts counties attend a public school other than their home district. In western Massachusetts we already have “choice on steroids.”

Lastly, it has been noted by Sen. Rosenberg that the state has had mixed experiences with charter schools sharing their innovative ideas with other traditional schools. This sharing was, in fact, one of the key expectations for charter schools so that the broader educational system could benefit from the public investment in charters. Sadly, in the experience of the 36 school districts in Franklin and Hampshire counties and CES, this sharing has rarely if ever occurred. So any benefits to educational outcomes to be had from the state’s unequal investments in charter schools have gone to the few at the expense of the many. This is an especially painful fact for our smaller and rural districts.

For these reasons and more, a cross-section of superintendents and the CES’ school committee representatives from across the region are unified in advocating for charter school policies more responsive to the local needs and issues of our districts. These would include policies that limit growth of charter schools in rural areas or near small school districts, that ensure charter schools truly reflect the demographics of sending communities, that mandate charter schools to provide evidence of innovative practices and how they are shared with school districts, and that involve more equitable financial resolutions.

William Diehl is the executive director of Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton. Jordana Harper is superintendent of Greenfield Public Schools. This was signed by more than 15 other superintendents in the area.


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