LWVA Opening Meeting Jump Starts LWV Charter School Study

The Amherst Woman’s Club was almost full on the evening of September 14 as LWV Amherst members reconvened in Opening Meeting to mark the formal start of the 2016-2017 year—although, as barely five weeks had passed since the end of our exhausting but successful annual Book Sale, a lot of us felt that we had never had a break!

Nevertheless, with an election that will be important at the local, state and national levels only a few weeks away, it was time to get to work. LWVA is actively registering voters prior to the October 19 deadline for registering in Massachusetts. We will hold a forum on the school building project on September 28, relating to the local ballot question of a Proposition 2 ½ debt exclusion question that will appear on the November 8 ballot in Amherst. And we are planning a Candidates Forum for October for the contested races for State Senate (the seat currently occupied by Stan Rosenberg) and County Sheriff (an open seat.)

In addition, local Leagues including Amherst are preparing to complete the LWVMA Study on Charter Schools that was authorized by the delegates to the State Convention in 2015. Study materials and consensus questions will be available by October 1, with consensus results due by February 1. The League has no position on the November ballot question dealing with raising the cap on the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth, but its study will deal with a much broader range of related issues.

Opening Meeting gave us a jump start on this project with an informative presentation by William Diehl, the Executive Director of the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES), one of 26 such nonprofit educational service agencies in the Commonwealth. CES has 36 member schools in Franklin and Hampshire Counties and works with a wide variety of partners to enhance educational opportunities, with a special focus on children and youth most at risk of failure. Diehl’s presentation was based on a study prepared with the help of fifteen school superintendents in Franklin and Hampshire Counties to inform legislators and others about the impacts of charter schools in small and/or rural districts, including those in Western Massachusetts outside of Hampden County.

Charter schools in the small and rural districts of Hampshire and Franklin Counties have different impacts than charter schools in the more urbanized areas of the state. Among the reasons for the discrepancies are a declining school-age population and a high percentage of home-schooled and “school choice” students. (School choice gives a family/student from one school district the choice to enroll in a different school district. Unlike charter school students, some, but not full, funding follows the student in these cases. Most eastern school districts do not participate in the school choice program.) While the percentage of students attending private and charter schools is not much different than in the rest of the state, that percentage (around 3% overall, but as high as 5% in a number of districts, including Northampton and Greenfield) is more significant when applied to the budget of a small district with only a few schools than a large district where the ratio of fixed to operational costs is lower.

Thus the study found that shrinking number of school-aged children, combined with the relatively high percentages of students opting not to attend regular district schools are imposing serious financial constraints on small schools and districts that negatively impact the programs and services public schools are able to offer. Diehl’s overall conclusion was one that the League needs to take under consideration as it completes its own study: whether the Charter cap is lifted or not, we need laws and regulations about charter schools that take into account local conditions rather than being based solely on what is appropriate for Boston and other urban centers.