It sounds so harmless, so reasonable: the state Senate is reportedly considering whether to change the way the state accounts for charter schools, by making them a separate line item in the budget. But that’s an ominous idea disguised as a minor bookkeeping tweak. If legislation containing such a provision ever makes it to Governor Baker’s desk, he should veto it without hesitation.
The proposal has come up as part of an ongoing Beacon Hill effort to craft a deal in the Senate that would head off a November referendum on lifting the number of charter schools in the state. It's been a highly charged, slow-moving debate, with neither supporters or opponents yet showing much inclination for compromise. As they try to create some common ground, Senate leaders have been drawing related issues into the debate too.
Some of those discussions, such as ensuring that charters educate enough special-needs students, are worth having. But the line-item provision would hurt the Commonwealth's charter schools, and education more generally, and doesn't belong in a conversation that should be focused on how best to meet the pent-up demand for charter seats.
The Legislature created charter schools in 1993, and they have proved both successful and popular. The guiding principle has always been that funding follows students — that if a student leaves a district school for a charter school, the state money goes with her (though district schools do get a payout to smooth the transition). Thus, there is no charter line in the budget, just one pot of education funding for public schools.
Why is it important to keep it that way? For one thing, as a purely political matter, isolating charters into a separate budget item would surely make them an easy target for cuts the next time there's a budget crunch. Charters are most popular in urban areas like Boston, where low-income and minority parents are especially desperate for options. But in many richer parts of the state, charter schools are limited or nonexistent. Legislators there might see a charter budget as a pain-free cut that wouldn't affect their constituents.
More important, though, separating charters into a separate category would tend to foster the very dynamic that charter opponents say they're against — pitting public schools against one another. Opponents of charters sometimes characterize them as taking money away from district schools, when in fact the money is tied to the students. Making charter budgets an actual separate line item, subject to legislative appropriation, means they really would be competing for funding. With enough bitterness in the debate already, there's no reason for lawmakers to turn anti-charter rhetoric into reality.