With days to go before voters decide on the hotly contested ballot question to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, a misleading November surprise arrived from an unlikely source. An e-mail sent by a credit-rating agency to a handful of cities contained a vague warning that their municipal credit ratings could suffer if the ballot measure passes, making it more expensive for those cities to borrow money for public needs. The missive, while seeming to support the scare tactics of Question 2 opponents, makes some faulty assumptions about the broader financial and political realities that will unfold should the initiative prevail.
If the question passes, it would enable — but not require — the state to open more charter schools, most likely in underperforming urban districts. And if more families choose to send their children to those new charters, fewer will attend the district schools. If the cities have fewer students to educate, those districts would receive less education money from the state.
But that’s not necessarily a fiscal calamity, as the e-mail sent from Moody’s Investors Service to the cities of Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield seems to suggest. To be fair to Moody’s, the agency said its warning was based on a draft version of a research article, planned for publication after the election.
But to conclude that Question 2 would have a terrible impact, Moody’s would have to assume that the four cities would be incapable of responding. They’re not. If cities improve their district schools enough to make charters a less attractive alternative for parents, the demand will fall. And if the districts manage their school systems properly, they can absorb any enrollment declines that do occur — just as school systems have always had to do at times of falling enrollment. Closing or consolidating schools or cutting costs in other ways is rarely politically popular, but it’s not impossible.
“You have to assume that the state would take responsible action and that these cities would take responsible action,” says Sam Tyler, of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. If the cities choose not to respond to the challenge presented by Question 2 — by reforming their schools or right-sizing their districts — it will be the officials in those cities who are to blame for the fiscal fallout, not the referendum itself.
The focus on the finances of the cities also ignores how the state already supplies a big chunk of school funding in cities other than Boston. Right now, the state contributes 80 percent of school funding in Fall River, 95 percent in Lawrence, and 90 percent in Springfield.
If anything, the concerns flagged in Moody’s e-mail underscore why the passage of Question 2 is critical. If the state gets the power to add more charter schools, it would put more competitive pressure on urban school departments to extend learning time and use their resources wisely. To assume the consequences of Question 2 would automatically be negative for city governments doesn’t give officials in Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield much credit. And the residents of those cities — the parents of the 32,000 children on waiting lists for charter schools — need quality educational options for their children much more than city officials need a reprieve from tough choices.