Massachusetts School Officials Seek Changes to State’s Enrollment Law

Published February 1, 2009

Massachusetts, like many other states, uses a form of open enrollment, but public schools are asking for the law to be changed because, they say, so many students are opting to attend charter schools that school districts are facing financial problems.

Under state law, passed in 1993, the home district must pay when students enroll in schools outside the district—up to $5,000 per year to public schools in other districts, and about $10,000 if that school is a charter.

“I’m not opposed to charter schools, but there is a very convoluted formula for determining the amount of state aid to local school districts,” said Jonathan Pope, former chairman of the Gloucester School Committee. “There’s a complete denial of the actual costs of special education, transportation, and other costs.”

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which represents all but six of the state’s school districts, agrees. He said the group is in a constant lobbying effort to change rules regarding public schools, though no legislation to do so is imminent.

Koocher said school districts lose more in revenues than in expenses when a student opts for a charter school. He also says charter schools don’t provide a true alternative means of education, which the state law requires for charter school funding.

Calculations Questioned

The fee paid to the charter school is determined by dividing the school’s revenue from local and state taxes by its number of students. So if the district has a budget of $1 million and 200 students, the charter school would receive $5,000 for each student attending.

“That’s not an accurate calculation because it doesn’t take into account costs of special-needs students, transportation, and [similar items],” Pope said, adding that Gloucester is losing students to wealthier districts and the net loss of funds is hurting those who remain.

Room to Adjust

The school districts losing students argue, with some validity, that fixed overhead costs such as heating and cooling remain the same unless a significant number of students leave. For example, one student leaving wouldn’t affect the amount of heating and cooling, but if the school loses enough students to shut down portions of a building, the heating and cooling bills could drop. Similarly, one student leaving won’t affect the number of teachers, but 50 students leaving would.

Pope says the only way to address that problem is for local communities to go through their own redistricting of schools, which has its own costs.

“There are some fixed costs, and it’s hard for schools to make those cost adjustments on a quick basis,” acknowledged Todd Ziebarth, vice president for policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC.

Massachusetts law attempts to address that concern, Ziebarth said, by reimbursing districts the full fees from state funds they lose when a student chooses another district in the first year, 60 percent in the second year, and 40 percent in the third year. There’s no further compensation after that.

Fund Students Instead

The funding problem could be solved fairly easily if the state treated charter schools the same as other public schools, says Kara Hornung Kerwin, director of external affairs for the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group based in Bethesda, Maryland.

“The problem with charter school funding in Massachusetts is not about school districts losing money, but that all of the state’s public school children should be funded equitably,” Kerwin explained.

“Charter schools in Massachusetts receive about $4,600 less per student than conventional district schools,” Kerwin noted. “Districts even receive funding for charter students they no longer serve and claim that it is still not enough. Lawmakers and taxpayers in the Bay State should question why money is being spent on big district bureaucracy rather than following students.”

Phillip J. Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.