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Op-Ed: Don't Fall For Misinformation, Vote 'No' On Question 2

Nov 07, 2016 03:03PM ● By Rich Cowan

Proponents of Question 2, the charter school question on Tuesday's ballot, are providing misleading information to Dracut and Tewksbury residents in their latest ads.

The ads feature the Governor saying "if you like your school, Question 2 won't affect you." But that is accurate only if you include very wealthy towns, like Wellesley or Baker's home town of Swampscott, which have virtually no charter enrollment.

Here in the Merrimack Valley, there is already significant charter enrollment and high financial impact. Statistics from the Mass Department of Education and Mass. Department of Revenue are available to see exactly what the impact is on town finances. Checking those sources, it is clear that passage of Question 2 would make things much worse in Dracut and Tewksbury, and drain resources from hundreds of additional low to middle income school districts in our state.

Here are actual numbers that demonstrate this impact. In Tewksbury, in FY16, the town paid for the tuitions of 88 students who went to charter schools, at a cost of  $1,167,496. In Dracut the impact was even higher: there were 195 charter students with a total tuition cost to the town of $2,032,811.
What question 2 proposes is to allow charter enrollment to rise without any limit. The current cap works out to approximately 350 students in both Tewksbury and Dracut. Passage of Question 2 would provide incentives to go way beyond those current caps. It would open up over 10,000 charter school seats per year. Plus, a generous federal tax break makes it likely that charters would be built in Lowell (to qualify for the incentive) but placed near the Dracut or Tewksbury town line to attract more students.

A misconception of charters is that they can save money for taxpayers because they can skimp on staffing costs. Actually the opposite is true. The charter schools used by Dracut have far higher management costs than the district schools. And the newest charter companies, the ones most behind the financing of "yes on 2," are actually run by out of state corporations that receive a large share of the tuition payments, and make a profit off of your tax investment. The tax break is actually what is attracting so many wealthy investors to pay for the ads run by "yes on 2."

Because the finances of public school districts in Massachusetts are transparent, it is possible to determine exactly how much more it costs to remove students from the local schools and send them to a charter. The following summary is from FY16, the school year that ended on June 30, (data from ). 

In Dracut: each charter student costs the town $10,446. The cost of educating students within the district (removing costs like out-of-district tuition and retired employee insurance which are for populations that the charter schools simply don't have) is only $8,905. Thus it costs $1,541 overall, paid for by Chapter 70 state aid and local tax revenue, for every student moving to a charter.

In Tewksbury: each charter student costs the town $13,247. The cost of educating students within the district (again removing costs like out-of-district tuition and retired employee insurance which are for populations that the charter schools simply don't have) is only $12,409. Thus it costs $858 overall, paid for by Chapter 70 state aid and local tax revenue, for every new charter enrollment.

The shift in enrollment not only reduces the staffing at public schools, but the added TOTAL cost cuts into the funding the town has available for all other municipal departments, including public safety.

But it gets worse. Over time if charters expand, the portion of the net school spending for each public school district made up by "fixed costs" like heat, central office, electricity, and post employment benefits goes up. The share made up by actual classroom teaching and supplies goes down. If a new charter opens in Lowell or Andover, the charter tuition cost will be much higher per student than it now is for the many Tewksbury and Dracut students who go to the large charter school in Tyngsboro. Finally, if a charter student comes from private school, the home district bears the full tuition.

Dracut, like Tewksbury, built a new high school in 2012. That school was supposed to support an enrollment of at least 1150 students. But because so many Dracut students have moved to charter schools, high school enrollment is now just 807, about 150 students below expected levels.

There is only a limited amount of Chapter 70 money and tax revenue to go around. Charters as "experimental schools" do have merit, and we are not yet at the cap (Dracut and Tewksbury could each about 150 students to charters under current law.) But when you completely eliminate any caps, and when the experiment costs more than what we already have, the disruption in enrollment and financial impact can wreak havoc on long term budget and facilities planning.

Don't get me wrong; I am in favor of innovation that improves our schools. As a parent I would prefer that those limited resources be spent on the vast majority of students in Dracut and Tewksbury (currently around 95%) who are still in the regular public school system.

Please vote NO on Question 2 on Tuesday.

[Rich Cowan is the parent of a first grader in Dracut. He has 15 years of experience in non-profit fundraising and management, and hold a degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT.]
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