It is perhaps the most potent — and certainly the most frequent — argument made by opponents of charter schools: They drain money from traditional public schools.
And there is no doubt that they do. Each student who goes to a charter school takes along thousands in state aid, leaving the traditional schools with less. At a time when urban school districts like Boston are working to close achievement gaps for poor and minority students, opponents ask, how can anyone credibly argue that school aid should be cut?
But the answer is much more complex and at the heart of a ballot question this November that would allow Massachusetts voters to determine whether the cap on new charter schools should be lifted.
“Funding was the big enchilada,” Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said, describing concerns recently expressed by senators trying to hammer out a compromise. “We can’t ignore it, and there’s a lot of pressure to do something about it.”
Charter school supporters say there is no reason for district schools to continue receiving money for students they are no longer educating. State aid, they say, should follow students to charter schools.
“They’re not educating that child, so I’m not sure why they should have a claim to that money,” said James A. Peyser, the state secretary of education and a charter proponent. “Charter schools are public schools, and these are public school students, and it’s appropriate that their tuitions are supported by both state and local dollars.”
The state also cushions the blow to district schools by reimbursing them over a six-year period for some of the aid they lose. It is the most generous reimbursement policy of any state, though it has not always been fully funded. The goal is to give traditional public schools a reasonable period of time to cut costs to account for the loss of state aid.
School superintendents, however, say it’s difficult to cut costs just because a few students have left the system.
For example, they say, if a charter school takes two students from a third-grade class and three from a fifth-grade class, the district can’t close those classrooms, lay off the teachers, turn down the heat, and cut bus service for the remaining students.
“If I’m only losing a few kids out of a school, truly, all my expenses are the same,” said Daniel J. Warwick, the superintendent in Springfield, which saw about $31 million in state aid diverted to charter schools this year. “So even if I get a reimbursement, it’s a significant loss of revenue. It . . . has a real negative impact, primarily on the poorest urban districts that have the worst funding stream to begin with.”
Superintendents also point out that charter schools, though they have greatly diversified their student populations in recent years, still enroll fewer special needs students and fewer children who do not speak fluent English, leaving district schools to educate the costliest children.
Charter schools “have students who don’t need as significant intervention as many of our students,” said Mary Bourque, the superintendent in Chelsea. “It’s starting to hit a wall. We’re trying desperately not to cut music or art, but what we have had to do is increase class size.”
Charter supporters say districts should be able to handle the loss of students to charter schools, just as they do when students move or leave for a parochial school. They also say it is not the state’s job to fund failing public schools, when charter schools can outperform their public school counterparts and, studies show, Boston’s charters are among the best in the country.
“We have a big success story happening in a very difficult area, and, if there’s some pain and suffering to existing institutions because they haven’t been able to be effective, there’s going to have to be consequences to that, just as there is in the private sector,” said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a philanthropy that advocates for charter schools. “Our goal is not to prop up institutions, but to find our way to strategies that help kids.”
The fight over funding is central to any legislative attempt to find common ground in the bitter debate over lifting the charter cap.
Many are skeptical that lawmakers can find a compromise, making it more likely the issue will be resolved in a costly and divisive showdown at the ballot. “Nobody has come up with an answer, and it’s been 23 years” since the state legalized charter schools, said Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.
Designed to be laboratories of innovation, charter schools have long been controversial because they operate independently of local officials, do not have to be unionized, and are given more flexibility to set curriculums, budgets, and staffing.
Under state law, school districts must send charter schools roughly the same amount in state aid that they spend on their own students. The state then reimburses districts for 100 percent of the lost aid for one year and 25 percent annually over the next five years.
The state has fully funded the reimbursement law in 13 of the 17 years it has existed. This year, lawmakers provided two-thirds of the funding needed, shortchanging Boston, to name one city, about $12 million.
Governor Charlie Baker, who is leading the charge for more charter schools, has proposed shortening the reimbursements to three years, to give district schools more money up front — when the sting of lost revenue is the most painful — but less over the long haul. Aides argue the shorter time frame will also make it more likely that the law is fully funded.
Baker’s plan would also limit reimbursements after the first year to low-performing districts with large numbers of charter seats. If approved, the change would pump about $8 million more into Boston’s public schools next year, according to city officials.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a charter school supporter who has complained that the reimbursement system is broken, has proposed a similar overhaul. His plan would shorten the payment term from six years to three and target the money to districts that spend the most on charter schools.
Walsh has noted that, since 2011, more than two-thirds of the charter seats that have opened statewide have been in Boston. “We need to focus the state’s commitment to charter schools in the communities that are largely financing them today,” he told the Legislature last year.
Yet even as charter schools have expanded in Boston, the city’s public schools have not suffered financially because the city has cut costs from other departments and pumped more of its own money into the public schools, according to one study.
The study, by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, found that as charter enrollment in the city has risen to 9,260 students over the last five years, state aid for Boston’s traditional public schools has dropped by 37 percent.
Yet Boston has used its own money to boost spending on district schools by 25 percent during the period, compared to 13 percent for other city departments.
“The charter situation has not hurt Boston Public Schools at all to date,” said Grogan, whose foundation paid for the analysis.
The study blames the district’s perennial budget woes — which led to cuts in special education and bus service this year — on the city’s failure to reduce costs.
While there have been a few school closings in recent years, the report notes that Boston has roughly 93,000 seats in its public schools, but only 57,000 students, according to a city-commissioned report by McKinsey & Co.
“The overcapacity is the real source of the financial distress that’s occurring,” Grogan said.
Walsh agrees that Boston’s public schools have so far not been harmed financially by the loss of state aid to charter schools. But he said the city cannot continue to make up for the decline in state funding, calling it “a structural tension in our budget that is steadily building to a crisis.”
Both sides agree that if state lawmakers increased the overall amount of state aid, it could ease, if not end, the tug-of-war between charter and district schools.
A compromise proposed by several senators last week would do just that: increase new state aid for all schools by $1.4 billion over seven years while lifting the cap on charter schools in Boston and other low-performing districts. If the state failed to live up to that aid commitment, there would be a commensurate limitation on the number of new charter schools allowed each year. The bill received a chilly response from both charter critics and supporters.
“It’s a really challenging situation,” said Rosenberg, a supporter of the bill. “There just isn’t enough money flowing into the system.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.