, Salem, MA

March 19, 2014

Our view: Time to lift the charter school cap

The Salem News

---- — Tens of thousands of kids are on waiting lists for charter schools in Massachusetts.

The lists are long for a simple reason. Parents desperately want to give their children a chance at a better education and a better life, and they see charters as the way out of substandard public schools and a life of dependency.

In Lawrence alone, there were 1,942 kids on waiting lists for one or more charter schools, according to Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education figures for summer 2013, the most recent available.

Add another 440 kids in Haverhill.

In Boston, almost 17,000 kids were on waiting lists for one or more charter schools as of 2013.

In Salem, home to two charter schools, the list stands at 252 kids.

The strong performance of most charter schools over many years, especially when compared to many city schools, shows that parents are right to think charters will improve the odds of their kids succeeding.

A bill co-filed by Andover state Sen. Barry Finegold would give more of those kids and parents a chance to achieve their dreams by expanding charter school opportunities.

Unfortunately, the bill is being held hostage for political gain, and time is running out to save it.

The deadline to report the bill out of the Legislature’s Education Committee is this afternoon. If it is not reported out, the bill is far less likely to be acted on before the session ends in July.

The issue, as usual, is money. It’s cash vs. kids.

Finegold’s bill would eliminate the cap on charter schools in underperforming school districts and give marginal districts more latitude over hiring and curriculum decisions.

“Why put a cap on success?” asked Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which supports the bill.

But opponents said the problem is that the state has reneged on its pledge to fully reimburse public schools for the loss of revenue when a student moves to a charter school.

By law, 78 percent of the per-pupil cost of educating a charter student is deducted from the public school’s education aid. The state had promised to reimburse the public schools 100 percent of the loss in the first year and 25 percent for five years after that.

But the state has not lived up to its end of the bargain in the last fiscal year, underfunding the reimbursement program for cities and towns.

Geoff Beckwith, head of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said cities and towns need the money to pay overhead costs like utilities that can’t easily be cut when a few students move on to charter schools.

Beckwith has a point. The Legislature is notorious for writing checks the lawmaking body can’t cash.

But he is woefully wrong when he says that the “first priority” for the Legislature and governor should be fully funding the charter reimbursement program.

The first priority should be the kids. Their hopes and dreams and those of their parents should not be sacrificed over a funding issue that can be dealt with separately.

Finegold, now a candidate for state treasurer, said he is optimistic about the chances of his bill being reported out by the Education Committee by today’s deadline.

We give credit to Finegold for pushing this initiative in the face of some partisan opposition, and we hope he is right about its chances of passage.

Another year of opportunity denied to the tens of thousands on waiting lists for charter schools is another year of lives wasted.