State poised to add 668 charter school seats in Boston
The state Education Department is poised to add hundreds of charter school seats in Boston, potentially loosening the logjam in a city where thousands of children remain on waiting lists.
About 668 seats would be available for expanding existing Boston charter schools or creating new schools in the city, according to Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education.
Chester’s announcement marks the first opportunity for significant charter school expansion in Boston since 2013.
Under a 2010 state law, up to 18 percent of “net school spending” in low-performing districts such as Boston can go toward charter-school tuition. Many charter school advocates and critics had thought Boston had already reached that point, but charter tuition costs have increased more slowly than overall BPS spending, which is set to top $1 billion for the first time.
“It’s something that’s made lots of people send out e-mails with lots of question marks,” said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, cochairman of the Citywide Parent Council of Boston Public Schools.
The new seats in Boston, along with potentially thousands more statewide, are likely to fuel the longstanding debate between charter opponents and supporters, who are considering both a lawsuit and a statewide ballot initiative aimed at lifting the controversial cap on the number of the independent public schools that can operate.
An effort to raise the limit in the Legislature failed last summer.
Opposition to charter expansion comes largely from teachers unions and parents of students in district schools, who say charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools.
Charter school proponents point to the thousands of families on waiting lists statewide as evidence of pent-up demand.
The greater flexibility and creativity found in some charters has won the schools partisans who include the state’s new governor and secretary of education, as well as Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a charter school cofounder, and Boston schools Superintendent Tommy Chang, a former charter school principal.
For parents of charter school students, education policy debates cannot compete with the pride of seeing their children excel.
Sholonda Ancrum has three children at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester and plans to send three younger children there. Ancrum said new seats will provide an outlet for children, like hers, who didn’t have all their needs met at district schools.
As her eldest daughter recently prepared to graduate from the academy, which offers sixth through eighth grades, Ancrum feared for weeks that the teen would be without a high school this fall.
“None of the charter schools called us back because the seats are full,” the Dorchester resident said. She eventually learned that her daughter was accepted to Cathedral High School, a Catholic institution in the South End.
Proposals for new schools are due July 28 and the deadline for expansion applications is Aug. 1, with new schools opening as early as fall 2016.
The new seats “will go to the highest quality applicants,” whether existing schools seeking expansion or groups wanting to create new schools, according to Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of elementary and secondary education.
Wulfson said the department, which will recommend who gets the seats, and the state Board of Education, which will select the winners next February, are not required to award the seats if no applicants pass muster.
A Boston Public Schools spokesman said the department is committed to working alongside charter and parochial schools to ensure a quality education for all children.
“Our mission is to make our schools places where every student receives a top-notch education and is given the academic tools to succeed in life,” said Richard Weir, the spokesman.
Charter school advocates say the proposed increase would barely start to address demand.
Kate Scott, executive director of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, said the 400-seat K-8 school would like an additional 400 to 450 seats to expand its middle school and add a high school, in response to parents asking for a “comprehensive K-12 education.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of desire,” she said.
Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said 668 seats would serve a fraction of the 13,000 Boston students he said are on charter waiting lists, and that quality charter schools would be scrambling to win the seats.
“We anticipate that this competition will intensify the focus on the cap, because there are so many proven providers trying to get them,” he said.
Megan Wolf, a parent of two Boston Latin School students who is active in the grass-roots group Quality Education for Every Student, questioned Kenan’s waiting-list estimate.
She said children often appear on more than one waiting list, and sometimes charter schools keep names on lists long after families have moved on with other plans. She learned this, she said, when a charter school offered her son a seat more than two years after her family applied for it.
“I don’t know that what they claim to be the great cry for charter seats is actually as great as they say,” she said.
In December, Auditor Suzanne M. Bump released a report critical of the state’s collection of charter school data — including its calculation of waiting lists — saying in a statement that “much of the data and standards employed are insufficient.”
A 2013 Globe review found that the state overstated the number of students on waiting-lists, which had totaled 53,000 students statewide.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said that charter schools, in which teachers are usually not unionized, are a “misuse of public funds.”
Stutman said district schools are unfairly harmed by the state’s policy for financing charters because the money taken to pay charter tuition is not equivalent to the cost of educating those students in district schools.
Many charter students come from parochial or private schools and have never attended district schools, he said, and school expenses often cannot easily be adjusted in line with shifting enrollment numbers.
“You can purchase fewer pencils, but you can’t purchase less heat,” Stutman said.