Pasted below is the official list, from the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) of the bottom 10% of Massachusetts’ 290 school districts, based on 2015 standardized test scores. These are the unfortunate districts which, under the present law governing charter school caps, are liable for spending up to 18% of their net school spending on charter school tuition, instead of spending 9%. If Question #2 passes, an additional 12 charter schools per year will be able to open, statewide, to pull funding out of these communities.
While there are many urban districts on the list, it should be obvious that school “underperformance” is not an exclusively “urban problem,” or even one of predominantly minority communities. There is a strong association with community poverty, though. The list includes struggling mill towns, hill towns, and rural areas, districts geographically spread out from southeastern to central Massachusetts; from Greater Boston to Berkshire County – and five of them are new to the “bottom 10%” list this year.
Even under the current charter cap, these communities are slated to lose double the amount of net school spending of better-performing communities. Imagine the choices these communities face. As my colleague Rep. Vega from Holyoke recently observed, passage of Question #2 “could be the biggest unfunded mandate in our Commonwealth’s history.”
Charter schools also draw funds from districts not on the “underperforming” list. The former mayor of Northampton once told me that her city was in the middle of a “Bermuda triangle” of charter schools. She listed the Emilio Reggio school in one direction, a performing arts school in another, and the Chinese immersion charter school then about to open in Hadley. You can’t tell me, she said, that these schools exist to help the poor children in Holyoke escape their underperforming schools; they’re there to pull the most motivated families out of the Northampton public schools. Today, Northampton, population about 28,000, is charged $2 million a year in charter school sending tuition.
It’s interesting to see that the Chelsea are listed as the very bottom of performers. If removal from local governance, and management by education experts –hallmarks of charter philosophy – could “close the achievement gap,” then the Chelsea schools should be among the highest performing. Chelsea’s public schools were famously run by Boston University for 20 years under a management contract (1998 – 2008).
BU poured millions of dollars, as well as expertise; and in addition to substantial state aid, Chelsea spent $116 million in mostly state-funded school construction. So, why, despite this investment and reform, are Chelsea students still “underperforming”? Low family incomes; English being a second language to 80%, and about 30% of the city’s students entering or leaving the district in any given year – and no charter school in the world will solve that kind of problem.
I send you these observations because I spent years in local government, faced with balancing budgets, and I am now charged with voting to affect every community in Massachusetts, as it does the same. I see a public debate about charter schools which is highly Boston-centric, filled with assumptions, and cherry-picked “facts.” I hope that you will consider the breadth and nuance of the problem of “underperforming schools,” and remember that what this phrase is generally shorthand for the thin resources of municipalities with the greatest struggles.