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Top 10 myths about charter schools Wednesday, April 30, 2003)
Marc Kenen / Guest Columnist Metrowest Daily News
Eight years after the first charter school opened its doors, no aspect of education reform is more successful -- or less understood.

Why? Because charter school opponents -- led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) -- have used a blend of exaggeration, misstatement and outright fabrication to support cuts in charter school funding and restrictions on enrollment.

With finances tight throughout Massachusetts, opponents have camouflaged these old arguments with budgetary rationalizations.  The latest proposal -- the MTA Moratorium Bill -- would slap a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion.

With apologies to David Letterman, here are the "Top 10 Myths About Charter Schools:"

  • Myth: Charter Schools drain money from public schools.

    Truth: When funding goes to charter schools, there is no loss of public school money because charter schools are public schools.  The total amount of money spent on public education remains the same.

  • Myth: Charter schools will cost the state $165 million next year; the state should not be expanding any programs during tight fiscal times.

    Truth: Charter schools do not cost the state any additional money.  They are funded from the same total pool of money as district schools.  They receive the same amount of money that district schools would spend if they were still educating that student.  The district schools do not lose money when parents choose to send their children to charter schools.  Instead, they do not get money they shouldn't receive when they lose enrollment to charter schools.

  • Myth: The moratorium bill will save the state $30 million.

    Truth: A moratorium would save the state nothing, not one dollar.  That's because the children will remain in district schools and the state will spend the same amount of money to educate them there.  And that's the real aim of the moratorium -- to keep all the children and all the money within the established system.

  • Myth: Charter schools are not affected by cuts in local aid.  They "take their money off the top."

    Truth: Not true. When district schools get cut, charter schools get cut by the same percentage.  Charter school funding is calculated by how much a community spends on its schools per student.  If local aid is cut this year, and education spending in communities is reduced, so will the amount charter schools receive.

  • Myth: Charter schools are taxpayer-funded private schools for an elite student population.

    Truth: Charter schools are public schools open to all who enroll.  Charter school families have greater racial and economic diversity and lower income and education levels than their district school counterparts.

  • Myth: Charter schools are unproven.

    Truth: Charter schools have had measurable academic success.  On the 2002 MCAS, two-thirds of charter school grade levels outperformed their district school peers.  The performance gap grows the longer students are enrolled in charter schools.

  • Myth: Charter schools play by different rules; they are not held accountable.

    Truth: Charter schools must meet the same state education standards, administer the same statewide tests and abide by the same state laws and regulations as other public schools.  Charter schools go through a rigorous application process, are subject to stringent annual inspections by the state and undergo recertification every five years.  Unlike other public schools, charter schools that don't perform are closed.

  • Myth: The charter school funding formula is unfair.

    Truth: The charter school formula is unfair to charter schools, because, unlike district schools, they don't receive financing for their facilities.  On average, charter schools received 5.6 percent ($6.3 million) less than they would have if they were eligible for school building assistance dollars.

  • Myth: Communities have no say in how charter schools are run or how the money is spent.

    Truth: Charter schools are founded and managed by local boards made up of people who live in the community, and they report to the state Board of Education.  The local government, school bureaucracy, and teachers unions don't control charter schools, and that's the whole point.  Charter schools have the flexibility to innovate because they are not shackled by bureaucratic rules and union contracts.

  • Myth: Charter schools cost more than other public schools.

    Truth: Charter schools spend less -- $856 less per pupil -- than other public schools, and do not receive state school building assistance that averages $450 per student.  Charter schools are a clear bargain for communities and for the state.

Today there are more than 19,000 children enrolled in Massachusetts charter schools; more than 13,200 children are on waiting lists.  The bottom line is:  Are these children better served in a public charter school or a traditional public school?  Perhaps the greatest myth in this debate is that parents can't be trusted to make that decision.

Marc Kenen, Ed.D. is the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, which represents the state's 56 charter schools.

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