BOSTON — The Legislature's final budget now being reviewed by Gov. Charlie Baker significantly underfunds the state's commitment to reimburse school districts for the cost of students who attend charter schools, giving anti-charter school expansion forces fodder for their fight against a ballot question this summer.
The Save Our Public Schools Campaign, a coalition that includes the teachers unions and organized to oppose the charter expansion ballot question, plans to target Baker on Thursday to bring pressure on the governor to find a way to boost support for local districts.
In a statement to the News Service, the coalition said that given Baker's support for the ballot question to authorize additional charters in underperforming districts he should "fully fund reimbursements to local district schools, rather than diverting more money to privately-run charter schools."
"Every year, privately run charter schools take more and more money away from our local public schools, where it would be used to educate all students. In recent years the state has failed to honor its commitment to districts to partially offset those lost resources," said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools.
Baker can't technically add spending to the bill and actually proposed a higher amount of funding than what came from the Legislature, but coalition leaders suggested he could veto the budget or temper his support for the ballot question. Baker could also file a supplemental spending bill to increase funding for district reimbursements, which would require roughly $57 million in additional spending to reach full funding.
Under the current system, for each new student that attends a charter school the state is supposed to reimburse the local district 100 percent of the cost of sending that student to a charter in the first year and 25 percent in each of the next five years.
Acknowledging funding formula problems, Baker in his budget filed in January proposed changes to the formula to move it to a three-year reimbursement schedule with higher payments in years two and three. To fund that, Baker set aside $101 million, representing progress towards full funding.
The budget now on the governor's desk only includes $80.5 million for reimbursements, which is down even from the $85.5 million passed by the House and the $87.5 million approved by the Senate. Legislative leaders made a host of decisions to control spending in fiscal 2017 during negotiations after revenue estimates proved too optimistic.
"Governor Baker was pleased to propose reforms enhancing the charter school reimbursement system for local schools and highly-impacted districts. The governor strongly supports lifting the cap on charter schools to give more parents and students in underperforming districts access to the high quality education they deserve and is proud to have invested the largest ever amount of direct aid to local schools," spokesman Billy Pitman said in a statement.
Medford School Superintendent Roy Belson said his city will wind up spending an additional $260,000 on charter schools at the proposed reimbursement levels, despite sending fewer students to non-traditional public charter schools.
"The impact of this funding diversion will undoubtedly lead to reduced local programs and services, including art, music, early childhood education, substance abuse prevention, counseling, and student activities. It is time to concentrate our investment in the public schools that serve the vast majority of our students," Belson said.
After two years of near full funding for district reimbursements, the coalition said that in the last three budget cycles reimbursements to school districts have been underfunded by a combined $142 million.
The fiscal 2017 budget on the governor's desk covers less than 60 percent of formula, according to the group, while the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center says the fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2016 budgets covered only 69 percent and 63 percent of the formula spending respectively.
If all the new charter schools allowed under the proposed ballot question - 12 per year - were to open, the amount of money moving from traditional public schools to charters would grow from $440 million in the first year to $1 billion by the sixth year, Save Our Public Schools said.