I have been a member of the Arlington School Committee for more than ten years. Some things change, some things remain the same, but the one constant is that I have had to spend too much time and energy saying no.
I have said no to lots of great ideas. I have said no to programs that would benefit our children. I have said no when my heart was jumping up and down urging me to say yes. I have said no because the school committee has the difficult job of weighing priorities against a difficult fiscal reality.
It is no secret that Arlington has had to raise property taxes, significantly, since the turn of the century just to struggle to maintain our current level of municipal services, on the town side and in our schools. The worst year was our 2003-04 school year, when our Chapter 70 education aid and our unrestricted general government aid was cut by 20%.
Last year, the state’s Foundation Budget Review Commission determined that the state underfunds its obligations to local school districts by more than $1 billion. The state’s response was to deflate the Foundation Budget by -0.22%. Last week, facing a $294 million budget deficit, Governor Charlie Baker announced plans to cut 1% of the state budget.
In this context of steady and significant disinvestments by the state in local government, with more cuts on the horizon, Governor Baker and lots of wealthy out-of-state big money contributors want us to approve Question 2, which would blow the doors off the current spending cap for charter schools. Question 2 would allow 12 new schools charter schools to open, taking 1% of the total statewide school population, costing $120 million more in the first year alone.
$120 million worth of new charter schools every year? How can Governor Baker afford it? The answer is simple. He can’t afford it, but he has no worries. He just takes the money out of the host communities’ Chapter 70 state aid.
Though the Yes campaign states that Question 2 does not impact suburban districts, you don’t need to put a charter school IN Arlington for it to hurt Arlington. Natick doesn’t have a charter school, but they lose 39 students and $435,000 to charters in Framingham and Marlborough. A charter school across the border in Cambridge of Somerville could have a large negative impact on our funding, and with a dozen new charter schools every year the probability of one or two or more bringing significant harm to the Arlington Public Schools students is very high. Charter schools in neighboring communities could quickly blow past Arlington’s charter cap of about six million dollars, doing considerable damage to the programs we offer our students in our public school system.
Yes, I am making an argument about the money. As Reverend Ike once said, the lack of money is the root of all evil, and the disproportionate and preferential funding of charter schools, at the expense of public schools, presents significant harm to the children who remain in the public system.
Under the current rules, the state takes away our decision to set priorities, to make decisions about our town’s budget. Do we want elementary librarians or a charter school? Do we want reduced class size or a charter school? Do we want to expand our early childhood program or a charter school? Do we want to reduce athletic fees or a charter school? Under the current rules, the state can make the decision for us. They can decide we must pay for a charter school. With all caps lifted, the probability of programs for a public school will be reduced expand exponentially because the state decides our priority will be to pay for a charter school.
Question 2 is an assault on our Town Meeting. It is an assault on the New England tradition that we can come together and make decisions about how our town budget is spent. It is an assault on the principle that people who want to spend money from our town budget should stand before Town Meeting and defend their request for an appropriation, no matter how small. Question 2 blows the doors off Arlington’s $6 million cap on charter school garnishments. It is unsustainable, and it will inflict considerable harm on each and every student who remains in any public school district that is forced to pay for a charter school.
There really isn’t much of a difference, in the underlying concept, between a Commonwealth charter school and a regional vocational school district like Minuteman. Both provide choice. Both provide a different kind of education. However, we voted to join the Minuteman district. We voted to amend the regional agreement and to allow bonding for a new school. We had a referendum to exempt Minuteman capital costs from Proposition 2½, and another referendum to authorize the building. Charter schools don’t ask for our money. They take it. They take it without giving us any opportunity to vote to start the school, fund the school, or expand the school. They take it without any opportunity to review how the money is spent, without any opportunity to weigh it with any of the other priorities of the town.
There are charter schools that do good work, that make a difference in the lives of children. There are other charter schools that are mediocre at best. What do they have in common? Preferential funding, unaccountable to the cities and towns forced to pay for them. Question 2 calls for 12 new charter schools every year, seats for 1% of students statewide, $120 million additional every year. Cities and towns caught between Proposition 2½ and underfunded state aid accounts can’t afford this wholesale expansion without massive cuts to schools and municipal services, overrides, and higher user fees.
It was hard to say no to elementary librarians, reduced class sizes, and reduced sports fees. Question 2? That’s an easy choice. Please join me in saying NO when it counts for the children in our public schools. Please vote NO on Question 2 on November 8.