In November, 2016 the residents of New Bedford voted overwhelmingly against allowing more charter schools in the commonwealth. As did nearly every community across the state.
In 2016, I voted against the charter expansion ballot question. Today, as both a resident and an elected official, I am opposed to the proposal of additional charter schools in New Bedford for the following reasons:
1. The taxpayer cannot afford these additional seats
Cities and towns are supposed to be reimbursed at a rate of 100 percent of the charter school education cost for the first year, and then 25 percent for the following 5 years. However, this reimbursement plan has never been fully funded. As an example in 2012, New Bedford was reimbursed $2 million on a $7 million dollar charter school assessment. Now in 2018, New Bedford is only going to be reimbursed $2.3 million on a nearly $15 million assessment.
With an estimated cost of $13,000 per student, the proposed additional schools (1,188 seats) result in an assessment of approximately an additional $15.3 million. Assuming we are reimbursed at a similar rate, we are now looking at getting assessed $30 million, with a reimbursement of $4.5 million. Without fully funding the reimbursement plan, the trend, whether it be an additional 100 seats or 1,188 seats, is simply not sustainable for the taxpayer.
2. The perpetuation of a 'separate and unequal' education system
It is unfair to build these new schools at the expense of the children who aren’t picked by a lottery choice. Beyond the broken reimbursement system, charter enrollments are more randomized, resulting in no appreciable savings for the public school system. For example, the selection of students from across the entire school system doesn’t result in the ability to reduce the number of classes offered, or the associated fixed costs of running a school. The public school must still provide the same level of services, with a significant reduction in revenues.
Further, most charter schools often cannot accommodate children with substantial special needs, behavioral issues, or foreign language barriers. Even when they are offered seats, they are often sent back to the public school system due to the charters' harsher discipline polices. This results in the public school system being less financially equipped to serve a student population with higher needs. The NAACP is on record stating that the charter school system results in a “separate and unequal” education for our students.
3. Accountability to the public
There is no doubt that our public school systems have struggled in recent years. That being said, the answer to these problems is not restricting the system’s access to resources. Rather, we must provide adequate resources and insist on accountability. Last year, I joined my colleagues in approving a school budget that for the first time in recent memory exceeded the state’s net school spending requirements. We must recognize that our schools are being asked to do more for our youth than ever before; this includes after-school services, social and emotional support, and dietary aid. This was a prudent investment, improving the quality of education for all. This charter school expansion will divert a substantial amount of our city’s budget, to benefit a select few, with no local oversight.
Simultaneously, as a city we must insist on accountability. Our public schools are overseen by a school committee, chaired by the mayor; these are elected officials. If they fail to make progress, the residents and voters of the city have a mechanism to hold them accountable, by voting. There is no such mechanism for charter schools. Further, charters are non-union; this is not a benefit. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, and our local New Bedford Educator Association members are first and foremost, teachers. I believe that the vast majority of teachers want what is best for our students. Schools without teachers being adequately represented in the conversation on how our youth are educated isn’t innovative, but perilous. The education our students are offered is a public good, and should not be run like it is a business.
4. Obligation to our future
We as a city have a fundamental, constitutional, obligation to adequately fund public education for each of our students. Expanding charter seats in our city at best might improve education for some, while leaving everyone else behind. It would cede control of important public functions and public dollars to private or non-profit boards.
Simply, absent operational reimbursement, the financial implications are too dire on the taxpayer and the public school system, and the negative impacts on the youth at our neighborhood public schools cannot ethically be permitted.
Rather than supporting a tiered education system, we should be looking to increase the quality of education for every young person in our city.
Hugh C. Dunn is an attorney and the New Bedford Ward 3 city councilor.