In the midst of the 2016 ballot initiative campaign about whether to raise the state cap on charter schools, opponents questioned whether charters even are public schools.  It now appears that the answer to the public school question turns on whether a school’s teachers are unionized. 

When teachers at two City on a Hill charter schools in Boston chose to join the Boston Teachers Union, BTU President Jessica Tang said that creating successful learning experiences for students “means improving the working conditions of all educators, including those working at charter schools funded by taxpayer dollars.” 

The City on a Hill story, quickly followed by Conservatory Lab Charter School’s announcement that it hopes to become part of the Boston school district, serves to highlight the glaring inequity between how district and charter public schools are funded: capital money. 

City on a Hill teachers earn significantly less than their Boston Public Schools (BPS) counterparts, which leads to high turnover.  The same dynamic, combined with needing a new building, is what prompted Conservatory Lab’s bid to join BPS. 

The issue comes down to the fact that charter schools only get about half as much capital money as district schools.  As a result, charters have to divert operating dollars (read: teacher salaries) into facilities.  Make the capital funding equitable and the facilities problems, teacher pay gap and high turnover go away.  It’s that simple. 

How ironic that, despite the capital funding gap, teachers’ unions so successfully claimed that charters “siphon money” from districts during the ballot campaign.  The claim is even more absurd in light of the fact that Massachusetts is the only state that reimburses districts for students lost to charter schools.  They receive more than two years-worth of funding over a six-year period for each departing student. 

What’s most amazing is that despite the inequity, charter schools have long blown the doors off their district counterparts in Boston and across the Commonwealth.  Studies from a who’s who of elite universities that account for demographic differences confirm that the dramatic divergence in performance extends across subgroups like special education students and English language learners. 

A Stanford University study found that Boston charter schools do more to close the achievement gap than any other group of public schools in the country.  But when it comes to public education, excellence routinely takes a backseat to politics, and it appears that Massachusetts remains hell-bent on doing everything it can to throw obstacles in charters’ path. 

Teachers’ unions are about membership; their opinion of charter schools will change depending on whether they see the schools as a source of new members.   

But state policy makers should have a different perspective.  Equitable capital funding is a must if charter schools are to be sustainable over the long term and continue providing Massachusetts students with a world-class education.

Jim Stergios is Executive Director of Pioneer Institute, a  Boston-based think tank founded in 1988.