Neil Clarke: Fund public schools before adding charters

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LEE >> As the statewide debate over the expansion of charter schools continues and November's ballot question to lift the existing cap on charter schools looms, it's important to consider the impact of charter schools in the Berkshires.

This year alone, charter schools will siphon off $2,043,820 in funds that would otherwise stay in the Pittsfield Public Schools, and be used to improve learning for all students. North Adams is losing $673,159, and the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District is losing $741,384. [This is based on data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education].

For students, this funding loss means larger class sizes, fewer enrichment courses such as music, art, and athletics, and other damaging cutbacks. The Adams-Cheshire Regional School District's fiscal year 2017 budget cuts 12.5 full-time positions, including six teachers.

Starving schools

None of us should be surprised that after years of shrinking budgets, our local schools are struggling to meet the needs of many of our students. A recent report by a school budget review commission found that Massachusetts is underfunding public education by at least $1 billion a year. The ability of our schools to provide students with more opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and enrichment programs such as music, art, and athletics, is already threatened. And now, charter schools are taking more than $400 million in funds each year from our local school districts.

Numerous studies have shown that early education is the most effective way to ensure a child's success later in life, but only 51 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in Pittsfield are enrolled in an early education program. In North Adams and Cheshire, it's around 60 percent, and in Adams, its only 30 percent.

Statewide, Massachusetts has over 16,000 children on waiting lists for pre-school programs. At the very least, we should provide access to pre-school and early learning programs for every child instead of giving money to more unaccountable charter schools.

Part of the problem is that the state approves charter schools even when the communities where they will be located are opposed to them. This has happened in Brockton, Gloucester, and many other communities. Charter schools are not accountable to the local taxpayers who have to pay for them or the communities they serve. That's wrong. Parents and taxpayers in the Berkshires should have the final say on what kind of schools we want.

A report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, released last month, found that 60 percent of charter schools in Massachusetts don't have a single parent on their boards of trustees.

Fully fund first

Clearly, some of our schools are struggling, particularly in our urban areas. We should be committed to fixing them — not keep taking money away and giving it to charters which accept fewer English-language learners and kids with significant special needs. Expanding a two-track system of separate and unequal schools, where students with the most challenges remain in local district schools with fewer and fewer resources, is not consistent with our Massachusetts values.

The ballot question will allow charters to expand into areas where they don't exist right now — anywhere in the state — taking millions away from successful neighborhood public schools and causing the elimination of programs, increases in class sizes, and other damaging cuts in the schools that most families choose.

In the Berkshires, allowing charter schools to take more money away from our public school system will only hurt the majority of students. We need to fully fund our public school system before we consider spending more money on charter schools.

Neil Clarke is a retired middle school teacher, Lee Middle and High School.


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