As a founding board member of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, I’m a longtime supporter of Boston’s charter schools. Last year, as mayor, I proposed state legislation to raise the cap on charter school growth while also giving charter schools access to state building funds for the first time.
It may surprise some, then, that I am voting “no” on ballot Question 2 — and urging everyone in the Commonwealth to do the same.
My reasons are clear. Question 2 does not just raise the cap. Over time, it would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts — not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them.
This impact would hit Boston especially hard. Twenty-five percent of statewide charter school seats, and 36 percent of the seats added since 2011, are in Boston. Each year, the city sends charter schools a large and growing portion of its state education aid to fund them. This funding system is unsustainable at current levels and would be catastrophic at the scale proposed by the ballot question.
For one thing, state reimbursements to cover the district’s transitional costs have been underfunded by $48 million over the last three fiscal years, a shortfall projected to grow into the hundreds of millions if the ballot question passes.
In addition, our charter school assessment is based on a raw per-student average that does not adequately account for differing student needs and the costs of meeting them. This system punishes Boston Public Schools for its commitments to inclusive classrooms and sheltered English immersion, as well as everything from vocational education to social and emotional learning.
If those factors don’t tilt the playing field enough, there’s a kicker. Because our charter school assessment is based largely on the district’s spending, the more high-needs students are concentrated in district schools — and the more we have to compensate for withheld reimbursements — the higher our charter payments grow. Currently, our charter school assessment is 5 percent of the city’s entire budget. Under the ballot proposal, it would grow to almost 20 percent in just over a decade. It’s a looming death spiral for our district budget, aimed squarely at the most vulnerable children in our city. It’s not just unsustainable, it’s unconscionable.
I have heard it argued that this kind of financial pressure is needed to force Boston and other districts into making long-overdue reforms. In fact, Superintendent Tommy Chang has advanced an ambitious and thoughtful change agenda. We are completing a long-term financial plan to focus our spending more effectively, efficiently, and equitably on classrooms. We are using an equity-and-data lens to make decisions about our facilities footprint and grade configurations. We are reducing transportation costs. We have increased school autonomy and modernized hiring practices, and petitioned the state for even more flexibility in these areas. Instead of accelerating reforms, the ballot proposal would undermine our planning and replace steady progress with increasingly bitter budget, facilities, and labor disputes.
My final reason for opposing Question 2 is as someone who values and cares about our charter schools. Massachusetts is rightly proud of how our charters have transcended the unremarkable performance and shocking scandals that have beset charters in many other states. That success is built on 20 years of sound growth. I know from experience how much planning it takes to launch and grow a strong charter school. Since the first schools opened, in 1995, the Commonwealth has added an average of 1,762 charter students each year. The ballot question could more than quadruple that rate, with increases concentrated in Boston and other urban districts. This reckless growth would change our charter culture and greatly increase the likelihood of school failures that hurt kids and discredit the reform movement.
The fact is, Boston has the best charter schools and the best district schools of any major city in the nation — both with long waiting lists and fiercely proud school communities. The way to continue our progress and bring it to all students is not through wholesale upheaval that pits school against school and family against family. It is through a sustainable funding system and greater collaboration.
This ballot question is not a referendum on charter schools. It is a deeply misguided proposal that is fundamentally hostile to the progress of school improvement, the financial health of municipalities, and the principle of local control. I urge everyone to join me on Nov. 8 in voting “no” on Question 2. Then we can get to work — together — to improve all our schools.
Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston.