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Backers, Foes Draw Battle Lines Over Mass. Charters

By John Gehring — May 19, 2004 3 min read
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Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has vowed to defeat efforts to slow the growth of charter schools in his state, after House lawmakers there approved a one-year moratorium on the independently operated public schools.

The measure, which passed the House of Representatives on April 28, would also halt the opening of five new charter schools already approved by the state education department until a new formula for financing charter schools is found. The Senate was scheduled to take up the moratorium issue this week.

The Republican governor showed no signs of backing away from charters when he visited Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston on May 5 to award charters to four schools scheduled to open in the fall.

“Let there be no doubt, I will veto any charter school moratorium that reaches my desk,” Mr. Romney said at the school. “Charter schools provide more alternatives in public education and encourage innovation and excellence.”

Charter schools have become an increasingly contentious topic in Massachusetts.

Many school district leaders and public officials say the schools have created significant financial burdens for districts and towns because state funding follows students who leave regular public schools for charter schools. This school year, Massachusetts districts gave up a total of $138.5 million in state aid to charter schools, which enroll 15,884 students, according to education department data.

“Innovation and experimentation is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of schools and children,” said Kathleen A. Kelley, the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, a 22,000- member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

‘Sheep’s Clothing’

District schools, she said, pay inflated per-pupil- expenditure costs for students going to charter schools because those costs include money for services such as special education that charter schools rarely incur.

“The costs have got to be more in line with what the actual per-pupil costs really are,” Ms. Kelley said.

Charter school advocates counter that districts are partially reimbursed by the state for those financial losses.

Massachusetts first gave charter schools the green light in 1993 as part of a broad education reform act. Today, 43 charter schools operate independently of the public school system, and seven, less controversial Horace Mann charter schools operate within districts.

Charter school proponents, including Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll and a majority of the state board of education, say that while it may be necessary to review charter school funding, the schools have in some cases produced impressive results.

At Roxbury Prep Charter—which Gov. Romney visited two weeks ago to renew the school’s charter and award charters to new schools—scores on state exams in mathematics and English, for example, are some of the best in the state for a school that is largely Latino and African-American.

But the results are mixed on charter school performance across the state.

While a Boston Globe analysis found that more than 60 percent of urban charter schools had better test scores than did comparable noncharter schools, more than half the charter schools around the state scored below average on the math and English exams.

The state board of education has shut down only one charter school: In 2002, the state revoked the charter of Lynn Community Charter School because of organizational and academic shortcomings.

According to the office of Mayor Edward J. “Chip” Clancy Jr., the city of Lynn lost $7.6 million to the now- defunct charter school from 1997 through 2002.

Despite the failure of the school and the fiscal impact, a new charter school with different owners is scheduled to open in September against the wishes of the mayor and nearly every other public official in Lynn.

Mayor Clancy has called charter schooling a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that drains dollars from regular public schools and diverts resources to untried, mostly for-profit schools.

According to Bill Bochnak, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, as state education aid to the city has shrunk over the past two years, 270 teachers and other employees have been laid off in the 15,000-student Lynn school system. Kindergarten and pre-K programs have also been eliminated. A new charter school, Mr. Bochnak said, would cost the district $800,000 in its first year.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Backers, Foes Draw Battle Lines Over Mass. Charters

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