Raising the Cap on Charters: Who Benefits? Who Pays?

Amidst the emotional and political jockeying that has come to characterize the debate over charter schools in Massachusetts, we lose sight of two fundamental questions that should drive public policy decisions: Who benefits? And who pays? When applied to the current bill to raise the cap on charter school spending in the lowest-performing schools districts, the answers are in the data.

A recent column in the Boston Globe claims the political agendas of adults forget the needs of the children. The story draws on an interview with one mother, indifferent to the cap lift, who sees charter schools as a distraction from the true problem of fixing district schools.

However, anecdotes don't make data. And the data show that Massachusetts charter schools are producing one of the fastest-shrinking achievement gaps in the country.

According to a 2013 Stanford University CREDO study, Massachusetts charter public school students gain an additional 1.5 months of learning each year in English and an additional 2.5 months in math compared to their traditional public school counterparts.

Statewide, low-income charter school students fell less than two points shy of closing the entire 20-point wealth-based achievement gap on state tests in 2013. Critics say charter schools "cherry pick" their students, but during the 2013- 2014 school year, 54 percent of the charter school population was low income, compared to 38 percent statewide.

In Boston, charter school students are closing the achievement gap faster than any other public schools in the country; one year in a Boston charter school equals two years of learning in a Boston public school.

Public charter schools today are a fixture across Massachusetts and growing in popularity, especially in urban districts.

In 2002 there were 46 charter schools in Massachusetts that educated 16,000 students and another 13,000 were on waitlists. By 2012, 81 charters were educating 35,000 students, but the waitlists had grown to 40,000.

The 17 lowest-performing urban school districts serve 22 percent of all public school students and are home to 57 percent of the charter school population. Since 2005, charter school enrollment has doubled in these districts.

When reading the data, it is clear that low-income and minority students significantly benefit from these schools. And as they succeed, so too does Massachusetts.

Now, what will it cost?

The 2010 "Act Relative to the Achievement Gap" doubled from 9 to 18 percent the portion of school spending that could flow to charter schools in the lowest-performing 10 percent of Massachusetts school districts. Five districts have already hit the cap, 10 have room for just one more charter school and five more have room for two more.

The proposed legislation, which would increase the percentage of district spending that can flow to charters from 18 to 23 percent in the lowest-performing school districts, passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives.

When a student leaves a district school to attend a charter school, funding follows the student. Affected school districts are reimbursed for six years for "phantom" students, 100 percent in the first year and 25 percent for the subsequent five years. This is one of the most generous reimbursement formulas in the country. It should also be noted that if a parent decides to leave a public school to enroll his or her child in a private school, no such buffer is given.

A Pioneer Institute study found accommodating the waitlists of the 17 lowest-performing school districts in Massachusetts up to the current 18 percent spending cap would result in $141 million shifting from district to charter schools. That is only 5 percent of the $2.5 billion net school spending in these districts. Moreover, state reimbursements would make up for about 28 percent of that over a decade. It is a small price to pay for giving more parents a choice in public education and allowing more than 10,000 students to leave low-performing district schools and attend some of the best public schools in the country.

Given the data and the political climate, answering the questions of who benefits and who pays will differ drastically depending on the upcoming senate vote.