Charter schools are not free

  • MIKE WATSON IMAGES

Published: 9/4/2019 9:10:28 AM

Every child deserves a quality education. Parents have the right to make educational choices for their children. No one disputes either of these statements. However the choices parents make have consequences for their communities — financial consequences of which they may not even be aware.

In Leverett, we expect six children to attend a charter school this fall. Their parents won’t pay tuition; instead, the state will transfer over $115,000 to the charter school from Leverett’s Chapter 70 state aid. That’s more than $19,000 per student. In contrast, if parents exercise school choice and transfer their child to another community’s public school, the cost to the “sending” school is about $5,000, depending on the “receiving” school. Both choices have an effect on our school’s budget, but clearly the charter school transfer is by far more challenging for the school and the town. If that $115,000 stayed in Leverett, the school’s budget would be balanced without the cuts needed to prevent unacceptable increases in property tax rates.

Leverett is not alone in dealing with these transfers to charter schools. South Hadley is cutting $1 million from its school budget this year as transfers to charter schools have risen to $1.5 million. The Amherst-Pelham school district must cut programs and staff as it sends $1.8 million to charter schools.

You might ask why, if the school has fewer students, its costs don’t go down. It turns out the answer is they do, but not much. Many costs are fixed, regardless of enrollment, and others don’t go up or down in direct proportion to enrollment. School buildings have to be maintained no matter how many students are in them. Class teachers are paid the same salary whatever the class size. What does get cut are the adjunct positions and expenses that enrich the children’s educational experience — art, music, field trips, etc. Did you go to a school that had a librarian? Often these are the first positions to be cut.

Ponder these numbers for a moment. Leverett will lose a net $115,246 for six students to attend a charter school That’s a net $19,208 tuition per student who leaves. This money is taken from the state aid given to Leverett; we have no say over how the number is calculated. The school fiscal 2020 budget is about $2.1 million. That equates, after state aid, to tuition being roughly $16,000 per student who stays in the district. The last two years have been incredibly challenging for Leverett just to come up with that amount to educate about 130 students, with so much money leaving the district and going to the charter schools. We will soon be unable to raise the property tax rate to meet these costs, and both the town and school will suffer.

Meanwhile, the charter schools accumulate significant surpluses and spend considerable sums on such items as board expenses, travel and advertising. The charter school receiving that sizable portion of Leverett’s state aid to educate six students spent $110,000 in fiscal 2018 on advertising and $32,000 on travel, while also running up its accumulated surplus to more than $2 million. A Springfield charter school reported having $10 million cash on hand as of June 2018, while spending $31,000 on board expenses and $51,000 on staff travel. Local public schools are not permitted to accumulate any substantial surpluses other than modest reserve funds, and school committees operate at minimal expense to their communities, nothing like the tens of thousands spent by charter schools on “board expenses.” (What are those expenses? Conferences? Retreats? Consultants? We don’t know.) And, needless to say, a public school has no advertising budget. As a taxpayer, you have no way to influence how charter schools spend your tax dollars.

What should parents do who are sending their children to charter schools, or are considering doing so? First and foremost, it’s essential to recognize that charter schools are not free. Although they cost parents nothing, the cost to their home communities is substantial. Again, it is the parents’ right to exercise this choice. But we hope that, before making such a decision, they consult with their local school’s principal to see if the school can meet their child’s needs without draining the school’s budget.

For all of us, our take-home message is clear: It’s well past time for a major restructuring of charter-school funding. Let’s tell the legislature and governor to get to work on ending this bleeding of our local schools and communities.

Michael Dover is a Leverett resident and taxpayer. Bethany Seeger is chair of the Leverett School Committee. Some of the data cited are from an article in CommonWealth Magazine by Nancy Grossman, a former member of the Leverett Finance Committee.

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