Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

No, charters aren’t ‘draining’ BPS funding

Students protested school budget cuts on March 7.
(David L Ryan/Globe Staff/File
Students protested school budget cuts on March 7.

Many are the ways of expressing the same idea, some factual and precise, others crafty and misleading. Example? Well, if one says that education funding follows a student when she leaves a district school for a charter school, that’s factual. A listener hearing that would probably say: Makes sense to me.

It’s no surprise, then, that the teachers unions have devised a different way to describe that reality. “The MTA . . . opposes lifting the cap on charter schools because, among other issues, they drain resources from local districts, leading to the destabilization of public schools,” asserts the Massachusetts Teachers Association, taking aim at the Senate’s new charter-school bill.

“Currently charters drain . . . $121 million from the Boston Public Schools,” declares the Boston Teachers Union, which also opposes the Senate’s effort.

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Here’s what “drain” really means: After a six-year transition period, district schools no longer receive any funding for a student who, more than a half-decade earlier, departed for a charter. (If your bathtub drained that slowly, you’d probably call a plumber.)

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Now, the fact that the unions oppose a Senate bill that calls for $1.4 billion in new public-school funding and includes only a (disappointingly) small charter-cap lift suggests, once again, that their opposition isn’t primarily about district funding levels but rather about more disruptive competition from public schools that aren’t automatically unionized.

Still, given the union rhetoric, it’s important to realize that Boston’s district schools haven’t seen their funding “drained” by charters. “The contention that the Boston school budget is being affected by the increase in charter school tuition is not accurate,” notes Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, which just released a thorough new report on BPS funding.

Actually, BPS spending has grown even as its enrollment has declined. Yes, the increases were small during the last recession, but it’s been healthy since: Spending was up 6 percent in fiscal year 2013, 6.4 percent in 2014, 3.9 percent in 2015, and 4 percent in 2016. The total five-year increase: 23.4 percent. The 10-year increase: 41.2 percent.

One big issue the research bureau highlighted is that the district hasn’t adjusted for lower enrollment, only some of which was caused by students leaving for charters. The research bureau and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. have both found that BPS has significant overcapacity. The research bureau conservatively estimates the potential savings of a right-sized district at about $21.5 million a year; McKinsey & Co. put possible savings at perhaps $90 million.

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If BPS is to focus its spending more effectively, some tough decisions obviously lie ahead. But imagine if we had a truly innovative system, working with a forward-looking union. Why, they might even reconfigure the school day, stagger daily teaching and vacation schedules, and thus use the extra teaching capacity to significantly lengthen learning time.

After all, that’s part of what makes charters so attractive — and so successful.

Boston charter students typically get about 375 more school hours a year within the context of a 180-day year than do students in regular-day schools. Meanwhile, most charters have longer school years as well.

Currently fewer than half of BPS schools have an extended day. Adding another 40 minutes to the day, or about 120 hours a year, in another 50 schools — a change the district is implementing in fits and starts — will cost another $12.5 million a year.

There, charters are a real bargain. Longer day and all, their average cost per student is $560 less a year than the BPS’s.

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So: Given the facts, calling charters a drain on the system is silliness on stilts.

With their longer days and stronger results, they are a gain for the system.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.