Wednesday, June 26, 2013

0 The Facts About Charter Schools That No One Tells You

There is a lot of talk about charter schools and raising the cap to allow more of them to open in Massachusetts. Boston is ground zero for the charter school "education reform" conglomerates, individuals and organizations, like the newly formed "Boston Forward" group, which are greedily counting the millions of dollars to be made off of our students if this is allowed to happen. This situation has led to a lot of questionable push-poll results being passed off by our larger media news sources as charter school "facts" which are further confusing the argument for the public even after those "facts" have been proven incorrect or unsubstantiated. 

Add in a Mayoral race filled with many candidates, most of whom are willing to sell out our students for campaign funds by spouting the "raise the cap" chant (only three are against raising the charter school cap), and you may understand one of the reasons why education has become a major focus of the elections in Boston. If you think the Mayoral and City Council races aren't a big deal right now, you may really want to start paying attention, because they are!   

Other than knowing that charter schools are an "alternative" to "regular public schools" most people do not fully understand: how they are funded, the student populations served, their actual graduation rates and the differences between them except for their separate "lottery" admissions procedures. This became more obvious to me through a number of conversations in several venues so my inner-educator-activist kicked in to write this article that I hope will help families and the broader community understand why so many people, education advocates and organizations that care about educating all of our students are saying "don't lift the cap" on something that, in theory, sounds good.

Many people think charter schools are privately funded, which is false. The money that pays for students to attend a charter school comes out of the sending district's budget. Here in Boston, for each student that attends a charter school instead of one of the BPS schools, the charter school receives $15,527.00+ per pupil from the BPS budget, which is $4,000.00 more than the base per pupil funds allocated for BPS' own students. 

Then there is the transportation of charter school students per Massachusetts state laws which dictate that charter school students can be transported city-wide on BPS buses or vehicles paid for out of the BPS budget. Meanwhile "regular" BPS students are restricted to transportation only within their zone in elementary and middle school. In high school our BPS students are given MBTA passes and expected to get to and from school on their own. Exceptions to the zone-based and T-pass transportation for BPS students is generally for students with special needs when their IEP indicates the need. There will clearly always be busing in Boston even with a new "Home Based" assignment model as we must transport students with disabilities (SWD), charter school and private school students. The larger cost to BPS will be for transporting our own students with special needs according to my discussions with John McDonough, then CFO of BPS who is now our Interim Superintendent, but there is clearly an amount of funding which will be in our budget to pay for transporting charter school and private school students across the city. The only way to change this practice regarding charter and private school transportation is to lobby our state legislators to change it via the law.

Additionally, there are other funds which a sending school district may end up allocating to charter schools (at least the *"in-district" ones) such as: additional equivalent per-pupil cost of a service if the charter school chooses not to purchase a discretionary central support service from the sending district. A sending district may also end up agreeing to provide non-discretionary services as BPS often does (including but not limited to: transportation, employee benefits, facilities, payroll, safety, food service, and other central office services) as *"in-kind" support for the charter school. *Though "in-kind" means that no money is given directly to the charter school, instead the sending district provides personnel/services/benefits, the costs for those in-kind services are paid for out of the budget of the sending district. This also means that certain district personnel or services are at least partially, if not totally, unavailable to do their job for the district itself.

In addition to all that I outline above, in the recent agreement with Unlocking Potential (aka UP a self-described "school turnaround organization" which is taking over the Marshall) that the Boston School Committee members voted to approve on November 7, 2012, BPS will provide the following:
  • BPS agrees to identify which centrally-funded supports would typically be provided by the Office of Special Education and Student Supports (OSESS) to a BPS school with UP’s projected enrollment, including but not limited to any allocation of staff and service providers. The full value of these supports will be added as non-restricted funds to UP’s budget annually. Non-restricted funds mean that UP may use those funds for anything, not necessarily special education services. 

  • UP shall establish and maintain a separate bank account under its exclusive control which BPS agrees to transfer any funds not allocated or budgeted for salaries or stipends into at least two times a year. The transfer will be based upon the difference between the total Lump Sum Budget provided by BPS to UP Academy and an estimate of the amount of funds UP Academy anticipates spending on stipends and salaries.

  • UP has the sole discretion to select the staff for any and all positions at the school. UP may select staff without regard to seniority within the particular union or past practices between the Boston School Committee and any bargaining unit. 

  • UP, through its board of trustees, shall manage its staff independent of the school committee. Except as outlined in the Application and Charter, UP is exempt from the provisions set forth in the applicable collective bargaining agreements.  Staff shall execute an election to work agreement containing the working conditions every year. UP may develop its own staff evaluation guidelines and evaluation instrument(s) in accordance with all current laws and regulations. 

  • UP may involuntarily excess members of the BTU, Guild, and BASAS bargaining units as well as any other staff members and the provisions in any relevant collective bargaining agreements regarding excessing, seniority and transfer shall not apply to UP except that members of the collective bargaining units shall continue to accrue seniority.

  • UP shall be operated and managed by its Board independent of the Boston School Committee. As written in the agreement: "The parties expressly acknowledge that UP is an entity independent of the Boston Public School Department and that Boston Public School Department shall not be liable for the acts or omissions of UP, the Board, its officers, agents or employees except to the extent consistent with the law, including the provisions of M.G.L. c. 71, §89 and regulations promulgated in connection therewith."
In addition to all of the above, charter schools also get millions in venture philanthropy dollars each year. So, as you can see, charter school funding has a huge impact on our BPS budget that goes well beyond just the base per-pupil and transportation funds.

Also, through the above information, you can clearly see that though many people believe that "In-district charter schools" are controlled and overseen by the public school district in which they are operating, this is false. According to the agreement with UP, even if the BPS Superintendent or School Committee believes that UP is not serving the best interest of BPS students, they must go through a complaint procedure first with the Board of Trustees of UP, and if dissatisfied with the Trustees' findings, then initiate a complaint to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. It does not sound like BPS has any more control over the "in-district" charter schools than they do over the Commonwealth charter schools to me!

Charter schools state that they have a "lottery" system regarding admissions. When applying to schools for my oldest daughter we did apply to a couple of charter schools because they had sent us literature. During my discussions with the admissions personnel I revealed that my daughter had special needs and would be going through the normal evaluation process. Why did I do that? I wanted to be sure they could handle her needs as I was fairly certain she would need some minimal special education services and supports. I was then politely but firmly "discouraged" from completing the application process by the admissions personnel. Though my inner advocate wanted to respond a totally different way, in the end I chose to refrain from submitting the applications, which those who know me may find shocking. For me it came down to this: if they don't want my daughter because she might have special education needs, then they don't deserve to have her as their student at all. (FYI - she tests as post-graduate grade level in everything except math which is her disability area and her IQ is 148 - only 2% of world population has an IQ of above 140).

I soon found out from several other parents that the experience I had was not an anomaly as they had similar experiences. As I had also started asking questions about the lottery process, I learned that the "lottery" consists of charter school personnel reviewing student data and records to select those students who, though they may not have high MCAS scores, are children with high-average to superior intelligence according to other measurements including IQ scores when available. Those students then emerge as the "winners" of the "lottery" and are invited to attend the charter school. Additionally, through record reviews personnel are able to determine which children with special needs have high or *low-incidence disabilities or language needs which also determines which of our ELL and special needs students "win" the "lottery".

In the world of special education, "High-incidence" are the most common special needs which are primarily able to be addressed in a general education classroom with possibly a second staff member assisting the student in the classroom or some pull-out services; "low-incidence" are the more significant disabilities with more educationally intensive and costly needs and can mean they need more pull-out services, substantially separate classes, though if done right a true full-inclusion program can educate both types of students together.  

Which leads to the next difference between charter schools and our "regular" public schools: populations.

School Populations: 
It has become clear through several sources, such as the 2012 Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities Preliminary Analysis of the Legal Issues and Areas of Concern prepared by The Center for Law and Education (CLE) with the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA), our own BPS district numbers and Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MADESE), that despite claims to the contrary charter schools are not educating the same population of students as the Boston Public School District does. 

As noted above, charter schools are able to select which students they will educate and multiple sources of information including utilizing the raw data from school profiles on the MADESE site without any interpretation, have and continue to prove that the charter schools claims of serving the same students as BPS does is false. Utilizing the raw data from the MADESE site which has profiles of every "public" school in the state, my friend and I put together a snapshot of the top 5 (who has highest #s) and bottom 5 (who has lowest #s) for each type of school in Boston (BPS, In-District Charter, and Commonwealth Charter schools) based strictly on MADESE data not "selective choice" as some may suggest. There is no interpretation of this data at all, we are just showing the actual numbers themselves for comparison. There is more to come very soon and every school WILL be included!

Our major news media outlets are constantly hyping that charter schools are much better at educating students than the "regular BPS schools", but now you can clearly see that the information they have been stating as "fact" are actually "spin". Hopefully, if you hung in this far, by now you can clearly see for yourself that the pro-charter groups and reporters are spreading misinformation, as there are drastic differences between the types of students who are being served in charter schools versus regular BPS schools which makes a huge difference in comparing who does a better job.

Here are a few other little known facts about charter schools which should be extremely concerning to us all: 
  • Charter schools have a worse graduation/retention rate than our BPS schools do! As it has already been laid out quite well in an article by another blogger in March, until the school by school comparison my friend and I are preparing is finalized, I will direct you to that article: Charter School Attrition.

  • Charter schools have a higher rate of suspension that our BPS schools do, see the article here: Raise the Cap on Traditional Public Schools.

  • Charter schools' "teach to the MCAS" method of educating students does not set the students up well for SATs as proven through MADESE data again: Charter School Achievement Gap
Recently, Boston students organized a press conference and rally at the state house which I will write a bit more about in another article, but if you would like to see a brief synopsis of the press conference and rally despite the lack of credit given to those awesome students, please check out this article. This was a student initiated movement, contrary to the title and focus on what the adults had to say. The students of the Youth On Board, Boston Student Advisory Council, and other groups give me great hope for the future, and should not be ignored as they are the true experts on all of this right now because their education depends on them.

I will be writing much more on this topic as the battle, and yes, it is a battle, to save our public schools is heating up. In the meantime, if you would like to read more about the truth behind education "reform", check out some of my favorite bloggers:

Edushyster: Keeping an eye on the corporate education agenda, in Massachusetts and beyond. "Ed" combines facts and wit throughout the articles.

Mommy On the Floor: has just started writing about charter school issues, but has many great articles beyond charter schools!

I would love to connect with those of you who are as concerned as I and others are about the charter school cap being raised, so please contact me via email or Twitter @bpsnightmare.


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