Boston’s Charter Schools in Crisis

Brendan Halpin
4 min readFeb 7, 2023

Have you seen an MBTA bus recently? At least where I live, on the JP/Roxbury line, they’re all festooned with ads urging folks to apply to charter schools. (Is that public money paying for those ads? As near as I can tell, it is!)

This, of course, goes counter to the charter school narrative, which goes something like this: “We’re so awesome that people are lining up! We’re bursting at the seams! If only we could accommodate all the poor huddled masses on our waiting lists!”

This should be obvious but I think it’s worth pointing out anyway: if this were true, they wouldn’t need to advertise.

So I decided to take a look at Boston’s charter school enrollment over the last four years.

First of all, you may remember just a few months back when the Globe reported with alarm that Boston Public School enrollment was falling.

They got people to speculate on the numbers, giving great weight to the “people fleeing the schools because they’re dissatisfied” narrative. But here’s what the didn’t tell you: charter school enrollment is falling too. BPS enrollment is down about 5% from its pandemic peak (20–21 school year). So is charter school enrollment.

Of course that fact is inconvenient to the Globe’s narrative or the charter school lobby’s narrative (I know, same thing), so it’s not included in the article.

But, in addition to showing that the charter lobby’s narrative isn’t true, the enrollment numbers also show that a handful of Boston charters are in real trouble.

Some are only in moderate trouble:

Boston Renaissance went from 943 students in 20–21 to 922 this year.

KIPP went from 613 (20–21) to 577 this year.

and MATCH went from 1213 (20–21)to 1186.

Now, these are not precipitous drops. They’re certainly not an emergency. But it is important to remember that each student means $15k from the state. So KIPP, in losing 36 students, is also losing approximately $540k. That’s a hell of a hit to the budget of a school with 600 students.

But these aren’t even the schools that are in big trouble. Those would be:

Academy of the Pacific Rim, which went from 540 students in 20–21 to 467 this year.

City on a Hill, which went from 299 in 20–21 to 183 this year.

Helen Y Davis, which went from 193 students in 20–21 to just 114 this year.

and Roxbury Prep, which went from 1596 students in 20–21 to 1295 this year.

I don’t know anybody who works at any of these schools and am not privy to any internal documents or discussions, but if I were in charge of making the budget at a school losing this much money, I’d be very nervous.

I don’t know why the enrollment at these 4 schools has fallen off a cliff. But I do know it represents a crisis for all of them.

Now, of course, in the neoliberal imagination that gave birth to charter schools, this is the way it’s supposed to work. Money follows the students and parents vote with their feet and schools that can’t keep a steady enrollment eventually shut down.

Of course, they never imagined it would happen to them.

Also, of course, we know that itwould be an enormous black eye to the Massachusetts charter school industry if 25% of the charter schools in Boston have to shut down due to declining enrollment. (Almost as big a black eye as the humiliating thumping they received at the polls in 2016!) Especially if one of them (Roxbury Prep) is the school founded by ed reform superstar and former United States Secretary of Education John King.

So, just as American corporations are huge believers in capitalism until the invisible hand threatens to shut them down and they go running to Uncle Sam for a bailout, I can’t imagine the charter school lobby is going to allow these schools to fail.

And bus ads won’t save them.

It’s going to be tricky for them to pull this off. Because they can’t admit that their schools are in trouble because they’ve predicated their entire existence on the idea that the schools are better than real public schools and in high demand. But they have to find money to save them. So what will they do?

I don’t know. But if I’d have to guess, I’d say that MA Attorney General Andrea Campbell, whose campaigns for both mayor and attorney general were funded by enormous contributions from ed privatizers like Reed Hastings, Amos Hostetter, Brian and Stephanie Spector, and all the other usual suspects, will definitely play a role.

My guess is that she sues the City of Boston on behalf of the Commonwealth, alleging that Boston Public Schools not including charter schools in their enrollment process violates student civil rights because it’s somehow keeping them away from schools that are about to shut down due to low enrollment.

And then the city will have to include charters in the enrollment process, and then students will be assigned to charters instead of having to apply. And the charters will be saved! You read it here first!

Receipts/addendum:

Here’s a spreadsheet I made of charter school and BPS enrollment over the last four school years. I pulled the data from the DESE website.

Did you know that charters can accept students from outside their district? True! This makes their enrollment crisis look even worse, since they’re not restricted to students who live in Boston. Roxbury Prep, for example, has students from Abington, Avon, Brockton, Brookline, Canton, Everett, Holbrook, Lynn, Milton, Newton Norwood, Quincy, Randolph, Revere, Salem, Saugus, Somerville, Stoughton, Watertown, and Weymouth, according to a spreadsheet I downloaded from the DESE website.

I may not be interpreting the spreadsheet correctly, but according to the Boston Charter Schools website, anyone in the Commonwealth can apply, and Boston residents get preference.

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