Nancy Grossman: A good decision by the state

Thursday, January 31, 2019
A good decision by the state on expansion

The state has rejected yet another request by the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (PVCICS) in Hadley to almost double student enrollment. By almost any metric, expansion was a terrible idea, and the state has made the correct call.

Considering markers typically used to evaluate whether a school is serving a diverse population, PVCICS is consistently below to well below the state average: English Language Learners (ELL) are 10.2 percent of all students statewide; yet PVCICS had only 2.8 percent ELL students in 2017-2018. Students with disabilities: 17.7 percent statewide vs. 5.9 percent PVCICS. High-needs students: 46.6 percent vs. 23.1 percent. Economically-disadvantaged: 32.0 percent vs. 16.0 percent. Although charter schools were originally approved to serve high-needs students, PVCICS enrolls a significantly more elite, less-diverse, and less-needy population than other districts.

At a time when a 2015 legislative study determined that Massachusetts schools are underfunded by $1.1 billion annually, the fifteen to twenty thousand dollars per child that is diverted from neighborhood schools to fund charters is sorely missed. Take a small district like Leverett: This year the town pays almost $75,000 to send five elementary-aged students to PVCICS. The cost savings to not educate these children is negligible, yet more than a teacher’s salary is transferred out-of-district annually, money that is dearly missed. Nearby, the Amherst elementary and regional secondary districts together pay $2.2 million for 130 students to attend PVCICS, while the regional district had to make $1 million in educational cuts, another round in the district’s annual exercise in school budget-trimming.

Yet the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School has so much money to burn that it maintains an $110,000 advertising budget and had a FY15 budget surplus of $719,000 (an accumulated $3 million total over eight years) with no requirement to return each year’s annual excess to its cash-strapped sending districts. While local school struggle to maintain programs, multi-hundred-thousand-dollar annual budget surpluses are common in Massachusetts charter schools.

As previously directed by the Board of Education, PVCICS needs to attract and serve a comparable number of higher-needs students as its sending districts. And the state needs to fix the funding formula that depletes neighborhood schools while enriching charters.

Nancy Grossman