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Reasons a charter school moratorium is needed Tuesday, April 29, 2003)
Mark C. Smith / Guest Columnist Metrowest Daily News
The Charter School law in the Education Reform Act of 1993 was a modest, almost peripheral provision which called for the creation of 25 experimental charter schools.

Under the ideological commitment to charter schools of the current State Board of Education and Commissioner, that modest plan has grown exponentially.

It has also grown with little clear sense of where it is going, whether more schools are needed to fulfill its original purpose and what the end result will be for public education in Massachusetts.  The two most often cited rationales for charter schools are to demonstrate innovative ideas that can be helpful to local public schools and to give parents choice.

In considering the need for a moratorium, it is helpful to look at each of these stated purposes.

If the primary purpose is to successfully demonstrate innovation, how many demonstration schools are needed and how can we measure whether the innovations are successful and transferable?

The structure of the charter schools -- mostly very small -- and their freedom from the laws and regulations which govern local public schools makes it difficult to see how the practices at charter schools can be translated into local public schools.

Throughout the state, individual charter schools have student populations that do not reflect the general population of the community in which they are located.  Framingham, an economically and racially diverse community with a state mandated and approved racial balance plan, has a state charter school with a student population that is largely white and affluent.  The state has exempted its charter school in Framingham from the racial balance law.

It is unclear what a community with cultural, economic, racial and linguistic diversity can learn from a small school with a homogeneous, wealthy student body that is free of significant federal and state constraints.

Without a level playing field, it is nonsensical to talk about "competition" as an argument for Charter Schools.

The success or lack of success of the charter schools to date is also a matter of debate.  Test scores are decidedly mixed with a number of charter schools near or at the very bottom of the list on MCAS scores.

A moratorium would be extremely helpful in taking stock of the degree to which charter schools are demonstrating innovations applicable to public schools and assessing the success of charter schools to date.  Mindlessly adding schools without this knowledge is poor public policy and a poor use of tax dollars.

Charter schools have often been hailed by the Commissioner and others as providing parents with choice.  This is an extremely misleading statement.  There are about 14,000 students in charter schools and over 900,000 in local public schools.  At the very most, this means giving choice only to a small percentage of parents.  Because of the loss of money from local public schools and the program reductions the local public schools are forced to make, the result may be to reduce or limit important educational choices for 900,000 students in order to give choice to 14,000 students.  This does not make sense as a matter of state policy.

More importantly, from a public policy perspective, what does the argument that we need to expand charter schools in order to give parents choice really mean.  Does it mean that the goal is a publicly funded system of small, boutique charter schools so that all parents can choose among them.  If so, what will the cost of such a system be in terms of both dollars and the social fabric of the Commonwealth.

We need a moratorium to understand more clearly the underlying purpose of the charter schools movement is and to decide if that goal is the right direction for Massachusetts.

No other issue cries out for a moratorium more than the funding aspect of the charter school law.  At a time when the state is cutting funding for early literacy, for full-day kindergarten, for smaller class sizes and for school transportation, it continues to pour money into experimental charter schools.

In addition to the imperative of the budget crisis, the funding formula itself makes no sense whatsoever.  In Framingham, the state gives the charter school $9,000 in state aid for each child.  It gives the local public schools $1,000 for each child.

The formula used to determine the amount of money taken from the local public schools and given to the charter school is grossly inflated by such things as insurance for retired teachers, the cost of special need children in out of district collaborative placements, and the salaries of municipal employees in the town's recreation department.

The amount of money going to charter schools at the expense of local public schools, the inequities in the funding formula and the inconsistencies between state programs are a major reason for a moratorium and time to develop a more reasoned and fair approach to funding.

The final reason why the Legislature should place a moratorium on the addition and expansion of charter schools is to provide an opportunity to assess the unintended results of this well intended movement.

The genesis of the charter school movement was education reform.  Because of the growth of charter schools and the funding formula, there is increasing evidence that charter schools are harming education reform efforts throughout the commonwealth.

Framingham is a good example.  When the state placed a new charter middle school in Framingham and diverted $900,000 from Framingham's aid, class sizes were forced up.  With the loss of $2.7 million in FY05, it is probable that the town's new middle school (the smallest of the three) will have to be closed.  This negative impact on Framingham's efforts to reform middle school education can not be the intention of the charter school law.

It makes very little sense for the state to champion charter schools at the expense of reform efforts in local public schools.

The siphoning off of $1.8 million from the Framingham Schools for a small (190 student) segregated middle school has made it necessary to eliminate or reduce several of the initiatives that have made a difference.  The initiatives imperiled by loss of funding to the charter school included all day kindergartens, smaller class sizes and reading recovery.

The charter school provision of the Education Reform Act was an attempt to encourage innovation in public education.  It was a modest piece of that law.

Ten years later, the charter school program is draining millions of dollars from local public schools.  The shift of money from local public schools to small, experimental charter schools is significant enough to threaten the continued viability of the public schools that serve the vast majority of children in Massachusetts.

It is time for the Legislature to put a halt to the creation and expansion of charter schools and to take time to consider the purpose of the initiative, the funding mechanism, and the real impact of charter schools on public education in Massachusetts.

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