On education: from Josh Turiel, the Clam’s Token Elected Official

(even if he is from Salem, not Gloucester)

Question 2 is on the ballot this fall, and charter schools are a massively polarizing issue even among the left of progressives that tend to make up the Clam’s braintrust and much of our readership. Many progressives and liberals are on different sides of this issue. In short, Question 2 proposes to allow the creation of up to 12 new charter schools per year. Those schools would favor districts in the bottom 25% of statewide districts.

Advocates paint this as an issue of improving access to quality education for our most vulnerable students and families (a large proportion of whom favor charter school expansion). Opponents see this as taking away resources from our already struggling public schools and an attempt to privatize a public good.

In many senses, they are both right. Full disclosure though, after 9 years in our city’s public system my own son opted to attend Salem’s charter school for high school and we allowed that (a decision that spawned much Facebook abuse from some of Salem’s “characters”) and supported his decision. I’m a fan of our public schools, and I have done a lot to support them, but I’m no longer a public school parent.

My own opinion on this ballot question is that charter schools themselves are neither good nor bad per se. Gloucester had a very bad experience with their charter school, which was poorly run and wound up being closed down. Salem’s has been very positive with Salem Academy Charter – ranking in the top handful of schools statewide and well-managed.

In a perfect world, the presence of a charter school in a district can be used to spur innovation and growth in the public school district it lives in and gets students from. In practice, though, the district shuns the charter, and the charters take an elitist attitude over the rest of the district.

Dudes, you get your kids by lottery. They’re the same group the rest of the district gets. If you game the lottery, you ought to lose your charter. Period. I think some of this split has to do with outcomes, though. And that bugs me more than a little.

Education and knowledge are important in today’s world. But progressives tend to over-value secondary education. And they undervalue the use of actual work – the kind where regular people make and fix things. Charters are popular with many because they send a lot of kids to college. Well, college isn’t all that. If you have a career path that’s not served by college, then maybe it doesn’t make sense for you. Maybe the best answer is a trade education (something sadly neglected in today’s world), combined with an apprenticeship. Maybe it’s a general liberal arts college education. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a specialized college education combined with a postgraduate education in a specialty (law, engineering, architecture, medicine, whatever). And maybe I’m biased as a college dropout who went on to a career in corporate IT management before starting my own company 13 years ago.


But anyways. The important thing is for every kid to have the best outcome for that kid. Not just whatever the workforce need is, or whatever is perceived to create the Renaissance Person. So, ultimately I do support charter schools as a solid educational alternative that ideally should be part of the educational system.

So Question 2 should be a no-brainer, right?


At the same time that charter schools are (I believe) a good part of the system, there’s a growing movement among both “education first” liberals and “privatize everything” conservatives to turn more and more of our educational system over to charters – and there’s also a growing movement to turn charter schools into a for-profit industry. I really don’t like that. As I mentioned above, in Salem we had a positive charter experience where community members basically brought the Salem Academy Charter into existence. Gloucester tried to do the same, but never was able to get their school onto a solid footing and has been without ever since.

basically the GCACS

Basically the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School

Since that time we set up an in-district charter for troubled students (New Liberty Innovation School, which transitioned this year away from being a charter and back into the system), and Bentley Academy (formerly the Bentley School – the school whose problems were what brought the Salem district into Level 4) was a political football – an incredibly divisive topic driven at least partly by the use of the aforementioned private charter companies to get the ball rolling.

Also of note is something that is both a fact and a misleading fact. Yes, money is taken away from a district when those students leave for a charter school. But it’s not like that money just vaporizes, “poof” into the sky. The Mass Taxpayers Foundation (a fairly centrist policy group) put out a study this past week saying that charters aren’t a drain on traditional public schools at all, and though I quibble over a few findings (mostly in the below paragraph, having to do with fixed costs), we are in a state where the “dollars follow the student” system is applied to ANY public-option school. Including School Choice districts (like Hamilton-Wenham, which has brought in large numbers of out of district kids), vocational schools like Essex Tech, and of course, charter schools.

That money is given to the charter school to educate the child. Basically, the same total pool of money educated the same total pool of kids. This said, there IS a cost to the public schools for this. We are not in a true competitive market with schools (not should we be). But public schools have to staff teachers, maintain and operate buildings, provide transportation, and manage all sorts of fixed costs that stay the same if the enrollment goes up or if it goes down a few percent. So if the Chapter 70 money from the state that goes into the school foundation budget equals $7500 per pupil (not an exact figure) and 300 students go to the city’s charter school, that equals $2,250,000 assessed from the city.


Hahahhaa oh god it’s true sweet fuck

That $2.25m becomes the basis of the charter’s budget – it’s still going to educate your community’s children – in addition to any other grants or funding that school is able to obtain. But depending on things, your regular public school didn’t shed $2.25m in costs. Yes, they did have some costs come out. But not that much.

In their infinite wisdom, the Legislature came up with a funding formula to make up those costs to the district that loses to the charter. Which they don’t fund. Where the argument gets more traction in my view is in an overall comparison of school finances. And this is one of the fundamental flaws in charter school development nowadays  and the whole “for profit” charter school industry. Public schools in many communities are struggling. There are a lot of reasons for this. Demographic shifts. Special education requirements and costs (this is one of the loopholes many charters use – they have more leeway to send children with extensive special education needs back to the public school system). Increasing costs of owning/managing school buildings. Often restrictive teacher union contracts. The failure of the state to keep up with costs in their foundation budgets.

One more common objection to charters is that they aren’t overseen by elected school committees. Well, not every community elects their school committee (most notably in Boston, but regional vocational schools also appoint their school committee members as well). More importantly, charters don’t operate in a vacuum. They all appoint a board of trustees who have that oversight role. If they fail to do it, the state can (and in a few cases, has) stepped in to take oversight or even close the school. Massachusetts is good at this.

But charters aren’t all sunshine and roses. There are threats to the model, and that is a good reason to not just run away willy-nilly and build charter schools everywhere. And this is where the money is. An entire industry has emerged to build charter schools that run like a business, not like a community. And the financial companies and foundations (like the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame) with ties to the for-profit charter businesses are putting plenty of money into the MA fight. On the No side for big bucks is the MA teacher’s union – many of the charter schools are non-union so that’s an obvious place to defend.

The entire battle is a cluster. There are people who would rather see Trump in the White House than see a single new charter school. In our state, we’re doing better than most when it comes to charter management and oversight. But there’s also long waiting lists for charter schools all around the state, especially in districts where the schools are lower-performing.

Personally, I’m voting NO on Question #2, because I like having more brakes on the charter school system. I think there’s room to expand. But not much, and not quickly. And I also think both sides have a long way to go before we can get to a happy medium and run charters the way they can make the biggest difference for the state as a whole.

But our priority has to be on improving our public schools. That’s where the bulk of the resources should be going, that’s where the bulk of the kids are (and should be) educated, and that’s where the rubber meets the road.

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  1. Wanna run a Charter? Take over a district’s “failing” school – lock, stock, and barrel. Same building, same kids, same everything.

    THEN show us your “magic”. Otherwise…bugger off to private school.

    • Actually, at Bentley their first full year as a charter moved them up from single digit percentile in Level 4 up significantly and to Level 1. A few kids turned over. Some teachers stayed, some left, and new management came in.

  2. BTW…great, balanced, smart piece, Councilor.

  3. A couple of comments:
    1: The district does not just lose the Chapter 70 funding, nor is a departure treated like school choice which is capped at $5k or $6k per student. The funding that transfers to the charter from the district is the “per pupil spending” rate of the district which is an average that includes what a district spends on all their expenses including SPED which greatly inflates what a district might actually spend on the average non-sped student. Correspondingly, most charters tend to filter out expensive to educate SPED students and those who might have other educational or behavioral issues – sending them back to their district schools. 2: When the author mentions that charters send a lot of kids to college, it’s important to balance that statement with a look at how many children start at a charter school versus how many children actually graduate. In looking at numbers a few years ago during the height of our own charter debacle in Gloucester, I found that many schools that touted great success for their graduates neglected to mention the phenomenal rate of attrition of students from freshman year to graduation – with children being invited to seek other opportunities elsewhere. 3: The myth of innovation… While it is true that some charters do have longer days, school uniforms (which I support), and may engage in techniques that are different from traditionally run public schools, there is no driving evidence that they are any more innovative — a buzzword that is bandied about without much definition. They also have a reputation for high turnover rates of teachers and staff and have fewer requirements for licensure. 4: Follow the money — the drive towards privatizing public education should be viewed with the same concern and skepticism we reserve for privatizing prisons. When profit motivations are driving education policy and funding we’re going to end up with a few getting very wealthy at the expense of the public education mission. The Walmart Waltons and their ilk aren’t investing heavily in the charter school movement out of deep concern for public education. It’s not like their children are being educated in public schools, nor are they particularly concerned for the resultant US workforce given their own disregard for their employees. They are doing it because there is a bucket load of money to be made. Take a look at the 990 forms of some of the more prominent charter companies across the country and look not only at the salaries of their executives and top administrators and balance those against the truly public sector. 5: While Massachusetts ranks at the top of the nation in education – and we should be proud of that distinction – we’re at the top of the heap of a mediocre league. Internationally the US ranks far below our industrialized peers – much of that has to do with comprehensive funding and overall social contract issues like poverty levels, food insecurity and healthcare. Clearly there is a comprehensive need to improve our performance on behalf of our children — but it should be done for ALL our children, not with the attitude that charters are some sort of lifeboat for a few that are “lucky” enough to get in one. Creaming students out of district schools offers a skewed perspective of the charter performance and has the corresponding impact of concentrating the more expensive and challenging students in our existing district schools. No on #2 is not just a statement that we shouldn’t be lifting the cap on charter schools, it’s a statement that we need to renew our efforts at building on and improving our entire education landscape.

  4. It seems if the student stays at the charter then the sending districts gets chapel 46 aid, Year 2-5 is 25% of the tuition, thus the sending school receives 225% of missing chapter 70 funds from the state.
    Chapter 46 Aid
    Heres more from DESE
    Understanding Charter School Tuition Reimbursements
    Chapter 46 reimbursement aid gets its name from the legislation that created it, Chapter 46 of the Acts of 1997. In January 2010 Governor Patrick’s signed An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap into law. This Act effects change to one of the constituent components of the Chapter 46 aid program.

    The Chapter 46 legislation authorizes several aid programs. The more significant components are the aid for recent increases in charter school tuition and the aid for first year pupils entering public charter schools from private or home-schooled settings.

    Increased Tuition Aid

    Governor Patrick’s An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap expands the increased tuition aid component. This aid program is designed to generate the greatest amount of aid where there is a large increase in district tuition over the prior fiscal year. These tuition surges occur when there is a significant shift of district pupils into a new or existing school. The aid is a function of change in tuition, not specific pupil enrollment.

    The increased tuition aid program is often represented by the number sequence 100/25/25/25/25/25, or its predecessor, 100/60/40. The 100/25/25/25/25/25 sequence refers to the aid formula’s six reimbursement tiers, as outlined in the 2010 legislation.

    Fiscal year 2011 marks the implementation year of the formula. As of October 2013 the formula is in its fourth year (FY14), with only four of the six tiers actively generating tuition aid. The formula will be in full effect in fiscal year 2016.

    In Table 1 the tan highlighted cells illustrate the staggered, six year implementation of the first tuition increase under the revised formula.

    Table 1: Implementation Schedule

    Year Reimbursement Tiers Total
    1 2 3 4 5 6
    FY11 100 60 40 200
    FY12 100 25 40 165
    FY13 100 25 25 150
    FY14 100 25 25 25 175
    FY15 100 25 25 25 25 200
    FY16 100 25 25 25 25 25 225

    In the first year an increase in tuition occurs the sending district will receive 100 percent of the increased tuition as aid. Please see Table 2.

    Over the next five fiscal years the sending district will receive another 125 percent of this initial aid increase. The additional 125 percent will be meted out equally over five fiscal years in 25 percent increments. At the end of the sixth year the sending district will have received 225 percent of the initial increase in aid, or 100 + 25 + 25 + 25 + 25 + 25 = 225.

    Table 2: Example of Aid Disbursement

    Year Increase In
    Tuition Reimbursement Tiers Increase
    100 25 25 25 25 25
    FY13 100,000 100,000 0 0 100,000
    FY14 5,000 5,000 25,000 0 0 30,000
    FY15 6,000 6,000 1,250 25,000 0 0 32,250
    FY16 100,000 100,000 1,500 1,250 25,000 0 0 127,750
    FY17 6,000 6,000 25,000 1,500 1,250 25,000 0 58,750
    FY18 15,000 15,000 1,500 25,000 1,500 1,250 25,000 69,250
    FY19 1,000 1,000 3,750 1,500 25,000 1,500 1,250 34,000
    FY20 1,000 1,000 250 3,750 1,500 25,000 1,500 33,000

    The one to one matching function of the 100 percent tier of the formula has the beneficial effect of holding the district harmless from the immediate financial impact of new or expanding enrollment at a Commonwealth charter school.

    The cascading pockets of 25 percent reimbursement over the next five years will provide a financial cushion for districts while they respond to pupil loss. At the end of the six year aid cycle, charter enrollment should stabilize, the aid will diminish, and the pendulum of financial responsibility shifts back to the sending district.

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