May 18, 2013 7:04 am

Grassroots Report: The high price of charters

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By Deborah Keisch Polin and Tim Scott

NORTHAMPTON — Once again, the Northampton public schools are facing a budget crisis. In a series of meetings in April, the mayor discussed a $1.3 million deficit for the city. What is rarely pointed out in budget discussions is that the amount that the school system pays to area charter schools has increased yearly, as more students enroll in those schools.

While our city and schools face that $1.3 million deficit, we will pay nearly $1.7 million in tuition to charter schools in this fiscal year.

Charters drain public schools of badly needed funds. When a student leaves the district, the money that follows is $5,000. However, when a Northampton student elects to attend a charter school, we pay what the charter funding formula dictates. According to estimates for the next fiscal year, when a Northampton student opts for the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, our district will pay an estimated $10,483 to that school for that student.

In the case of Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, that amount is $10,827, and at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School it is $11,255. At the newly opened Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, the amount is $12,139 per student and Holyoke Community Charter School it is $13,898.

Northampton sends students to all of these schools.

Let’s be clear that this money does not go to the public school district in which the charter school resides, but directly to that charter’s coffers, while the sending public school maintains the same brick-and-mortar operating costs despite the loss of a student.

One of the “selling points” of charter schools is that parents do not pay tuition — which is true. Instead, taxpayers from the sending district foot that tuition bill. Charters are privately managed and operated, have little to no accountability to the communities in which they reside, most are non-unionized and they are in practice selective schools, tending to have significant attrition rates based on student academic and behavioral performance.

In Massachusetts, such “push out” tactics help bolster claims of charters attaining higher student achievement. However, national studies have shown that charters do not provide a higher quality education compared to public schools and are, in fact, further re-segregating society based on socioeconomic status and language and learning abilities.

As charters are well-resourced and can sort students according to those that can produce the best test scores, austerity is imposed on public schools, which are required to educate all students, including those whose families’ social and economic conditions are not conducive to the demands of current education standards and methods.

State and federal education reform policies are designed around competitive market-based funding methods, which contribute to the defunding of public schools. They transfer public monies to private profit, while narrowing curriculum to meet corporate “workforce development” demands, through the utilization of soul crushing “learning” standards.

Charters are a critical component of these policies — public schools are essentially set up to be, or perceived to be, inadequate and charters are offered as common sense solutions.

Meantime, the practice of school choice, including when the “choice” is to leave a district for other public schools and not charters, pits district against district and school against school in a fight for limited resources.

Current progressive proposals to fund our schools ignore the fact that education reform policies and a key ingredient — charter schools — are a major problem, not only when looking for ways to address our ongoing education budget crisis, but in determining what kind of education system best supports all children.

We must reverse the current course and acknowledge that only well-resourced, democratically controlled, universal public education holds the most potential of providing a high quality, robust education for all children. It does so while providing a space to create the thoughtful and critical capacities required for future participants in a democratic society.

We support progressive taxation and Northampton’s proposed budget override to help meet this budget deficit in the short term. But we must recognize, as many override supporters do, that the latter is just a Band-Aid solution that continuously burdens homeowners with limited resources and ignores the heart of the problems with current education reform policies.

True funding reform and an authentic investment in the future of our public schools would include redesigning the funding mechanism of charters or eliminating charters altogether, and removing high-stakes standardized teaching and testing from our schools.

This requires sustained, collective work. Many are joining the movement to fight corporate education reform at the local and national level.

To get started, one organization to check out is the Network for Public Education (

Deborah Keisch Polin is a Bridge Street School parent and representative on its school council who is an educational anthropologist about to receive her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Tim Scott will begin his term as an executive board member with the Massachusetts Teachers Association in July and is doing doctoral work at UMass on education policy.