HOLYOKE — As the Massachusetts Senate readies to debate its version of a bill to lift a cap on charter school spending in the state’s lowest-performing school districts, State Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke explains why he voted against a similar measure in the House.
House Bill 4091, “An Act Relative to Improving Student Achievement,” was passed by the House 114-35 on May 21. It would gradually increase an 18-percent limit on charter school tuition spending within the net school budgets of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, reaching a new 23-percent cap in 2022. The result in Holyoke would be more money freed up from the school budget to send students to charter schools.
Vega and a handful of other Western Massachusetts Democrats voted against the bill, including Denise Andrews of Orange, Brian Ashe of Longmeadow, John Velis of Westfield and Paul Mark of Peru.
Vega represents the 5th Hampden District, comprised entirely of the city of Holyoke. Holyoke’s public schools have consistently been rated as among the worst in the state.
“I support our charter schools in Holyoke,” said Vega on Friday. “But I think that with our new school superintendent, and some of the new initiatives happening here in the public schools, that we need to support the public schools.”
Dr. Sergio Paez took office as superintendent in Holyoke last July, and has promised to turn the schools around, even if it means telling “brutal truths.” He angered the teacher’s union last month when as part of a move to close a $4.5 million budget gap, he declined to renew the contract of the union’s president-elect. The district is facing numerous challenges, including the recent state takeover of the Morgan Elementary School, where students for years have failed to make progress.
Vega said he was disappointed that two proposed amendments to H 4091 did not get included in the final version of the House bill — one that would make lifting the cap dependent upon performance standards at the charter schools, and another that would fully fund the so-called charter school gap.
“One amendment said if the charter schools don’t show improvement over the district, their percentage would not go up the next year. That was not adopted,” said Vega. “Another was that the legislature would be required to make sure we fully fund the charter school gap funding, which is important for districts like Holyoke. And that was not approved.”
The city loses about $10,000 each time a student leaves to attend a charter school, because state funding follows the student. Districts are supposed to be reimbursed for six years for the missing students, 100 percent in the first year and 25 percent for the next five years. However, the state’s charter school reimbursement program was funded only to the tune of $80 million in the fiscal 2015 state budget, leaving a $33 million shortfall, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
In fiscal 2014, Holyoke spent $9.5 million on charter school tuition, and was reimbursed $2.6 million from the state. The charter school drain is expected to top $11 million this year, Paez has said.
Vega was asked if he would have supported the House bill if his two favored amendments had been adopted.
“I would be more inclined to,” said Vega. “But there are other issues around compensation for the teachers; they’re not unionized.”
Vega also said the district schools, compared to the charter schools, are in danger of taking on a disproportionate burden of teaching special education students.
Admission to the charter schools should be by lottery, not by application, said Vega, “because we can see the day when most kids who are special needs and on IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are not at the charter schools.”
Vega said he is more interested in charter schools that fill a niche than those attempting to replicate a traditional curriculum.
“Look at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts high school in South Hadley,” said Vega. “They’re doing something different.”
Asked what he would say to a low-income, academically talented student who wanted to leave a troubled district school for a better charter school, Vega said students still have options.
“We do have school choice,” said Vega. “School choice is separate from charter schools. If you have a child who is showing excellence in science or math, they’re going to do well in public school. But they have choice; they can definitely ‘choice out.'”
The city last year lost more than $1.8 million in state funding because 308 students exercised rights under the school-choice program to attend schools in other cities and towns.
Vega added that Holyoke’s two charter schools are not specifically oriented toward teaching children who are gifted and talented in math, science, music, or other subject areas.
734 of Holyoke’s students, or 11 percent, are enrolled in charter schools. There are 386 students on a waiting list to get into one of two charter schools: The Holyoke Community Charter School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, and the Paolo Freire Social Justice School, a high school entering its third year of operation.
Vega said he likes the idea of choice, but not competition.
“I don’t think we should be competing in education,” said Vega. “It’s not the right mindset. And here in Holyoke, I think there has been the competition, unfortunately.”
He cited what has seemed to be a reluctance to include the charter schools in city-wide events. “When we do Peace Week in Holyoke, all the schools get involved and do projects, concluding with a big art show at Heritage State Park. The charter schools are not invited. These are kids living next to each other in the neighborhoods … They are our families; they should be allowed in our city-wide initiatives, and that bothers me.”
State law limits the number of charter schools and students in three ways. There is a statewide cap on the number of charter schools – 120 total, including 48 Horace Mann charters. There is a nine-percent cap on tuition payments from most districts, but a 2010 reform raised the limit to 18 percent in the lowest-performing districts. Finally, no new charters can open in communities with populations below 30,000.
The districts affected by the current round of legislation are Boston, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Gardner, Greenfield, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Methuen, New Bedford, North Adams, Salem and Springfield.
A report released last week by the non-partisan Pioneer Institute concludes that the benefits of lifting the charter school cap in Massachusetts’ lowest-performing districts would outweigh the costs.
“While discussions about charter schools often focus on the financial impact of increased enrollment, the most important consideration is that higher caps could provide almost 30,000 students the opportunity to transfer out of low-performing traditional public schools and attend some of the best charter schools in the country,” the report concludes.
A charter school is a public school which operates independently of a local school committee and is managed by a board of trustees.
The Senate bill, which would tie the cap lift to full funding for the state’s charter reimbursement program, was released from the Ways and Means Committee Friday and is scheduled for debate Wednesday.