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Opinion: Charter Schools' Unfair Advantages

A city charter school builds itself a multimillion dollar home while neighborhood public schools are left begging for more. How can this be fair?

Welcome to the Renaissance, enjoy your stay!

Approaching the building, you would be forgiven for thinking you are actually entering a chic, private country club. The grounds are fenced in and accessed through a gated entrance. The renovated brick buildings look beautiful rising above the manicured lawns (fresh flowers have just been planted). There are many luxury vehicles in the parking lots: BMWs, Lexuses, a Range Rover. Off in the distance, blue-uniformed children play on a regulation-sized soccer field.

But this is no country club, it’s a Boston public school – actually, a charter school, the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, which recently moved out of its Bay Village home and into this $39 million, custom-built, three-building suburban campus in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, parents in the North End have been pleading with the city of Boston for a larger school, seeing as their K-8 Eliot School, which lacks a gymnasium or playing fields, is bursting at the seams. The number of children living in the neighborhood has increased by more than 13 percent during the past ten years.

The Renaissance’s new 6-acre, 107,000 square-foot campus includes a multimedia center and a large interconnected complex with a gym, cafetorium, library, music classrooms, and dance studios. The school says it offers its students “a full range of educational, emotional, social, and health care” (including eyeglasses and dental care). As you can see from the photos, these are some pretty sweet digs.

Compare this with the McKinley School, in the South End. Even from the one exterior photo, you can see that something is very wrong with this picture. 

The question is, how is this fair? Why should some parents have all the good fortune? Or, if you’re a parent of a public school student, putting it more cynically, how can I get some of that?

Charter schools and the Renaissance sweetheart deal

Massachusetts’ Charter schools operate under looser state regulations than traditional schools, can hire nonunion teachers, and are run by independent advisory boards that report to the state, not to local school committees or elected officials. They also receive funding from the municipalities in which they are located – amounts equivalent to what the public schools would pay if the students were still enrolled there. (In 2010, $12,628 per Boston student.)

The Commonwealth’s charter school program, controversial even now, was met with much suspicion when first proposed. In 1995, in order to get the nascent program off the ground, then-governor William Weld worked out a financial scheme to cover Renaissance’s start-up costs: a cheap lease and a low-interest loan. Four years later, the Commonwealth sold the building to Renaissance for just under $8 million, which the school paid for with additional funding arranged by the state.

Fast forward to 2006, when the Renaissance decided to move from Bay Village to Hyde Park. In 2008, the school signed an agreement to sell its existing building for $45 million. After using some of the proceeds to pay off debt and start renovations on its new campus, it was left short, so it again got help from the state, in the way of two tax-exempt government-sponsored bonds.

Of course, at the same time Renaissance was banking millions of dollars in real estate proceeds, it was receiving additional millions in state aid, money diverted from the Boston public school budget. (In 2010, Renaissance received $13.2 million in tuition reimbursements.)

The true costs of charter schools

The idea behind charter schools is, “Just because your kid is stuck in a mediocre school system (like Boston’s), my kid shouldn’t be, so let me send her somewhere where she can get a decent education.”

Fair enough, if the game is played in your favor. However, it’s hard to justify if your child doesn’t get into a charter school like the Renaissance, or, as many North End parents found out, aren’t able to put your kids into the local school because it’s just too popular. Across Boston, thousands of parents have few choices: risk everything on the public school lottery or send their kids to private or parochial schools. 

The Renaissance was able to build and open its school during a terrible recession only because of some clever real estate manipulation not available to your typical Boston public school.

Charter schools aren’t “free”; while public schools’ operating costs may go down as a result of lower enrollment (fewer teachers), there are fixed capital costs that will not decrease as a result of student transfers. So, many Boston public schools end up half-empty and in need of renovations. And, charter school students are bused just like other BPS kids, with the city of Boston billed for their transportation costs.

Contrary to what you might think, I’m actually a supporter of charter schools. Studies have shown that they can produce better results. But, the way in which they are currently operating may have negative effects on our cities’ public school systems.

In order to make sure every child is offered a quality education, some new policies are necessary.

LWC June 10, 2011 at 03:10 AM
We should try to create more schools like this

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