Question 2 on the November ballot is whether to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. My sense is Yes, lift the current cap on charter schools. System-wide improvement is an important goal, and we need to sustain support to all our public schools. But the 37,000 children on the waiting list shouldn’t have to wait for wide scale improvement to have the educational opportunity they need right now. The failure of local districts is what led to the creation of charter schools in Massachusetts in 1993.
Parents are desperate to find the best schools for their children. Why arbitrarily limit their choices? The quality of charter schools in Massachusetts outpaces that of charter schools nationwide, some of which have been deplorable. But the decision on whether to expand should be based on this state’s performance, not on the basis of some for-profit charter school in Louisiana or Florida.
This is all about the under-served. There’s little cry for more charter schools in communities like Newton, Wellesley, Weston or Acton/Boxboro. The charter proposal would help those communities whose public school systems are most challenged. Initially, charter schools were faulted for bypassing the most challenged students. Since 2010, however, the charters have been rewarded for their success at recruiting English learners and retaining them through their high school careers. An MIT study and others have found that charter schools have made greater gains among English learners and special ed students than traditional public schools. Eighty-three percent of the state’s 41,000 charter school students are black and Latino, mostly low-income. Supporters also say that charter schools have been making better strides at closing the achievement gap between whites and low-income black and Hispanic learners.
Charter schools have greater flexibility in setting the length of school day and in principals’ ability to hire and fire teachers, including tying pay to performance, and to shape the institution’s learning environment. The schools themselves are held accountable not only by their performance on such measures as standardized testing, but their charters exist for a five-year period subject to state review. If they fail in that review, they could be closed, which is more than you can say of poorly performing traditional district schools.
The most worrisome aspect of creating more charter schools is the loss of money their creation entails. The funding follows the student. Four percent of students go to charter schools. Four percent of public money goes to charter schools. The state also provides 100 percent reimbursement to sending schools the first year, with a required portion for the following five years. But reimbursements have lagged. The question is what districts are doing to achieve efficiencies in the face of decreasing enrollments.
Take Boston, for example. Boston public schools are held harmless when students leave to go to charter schools. They get about 35 percent of the city’s budget, irrespective of charter school students. The system can accommodate 93,000 students but is only educating 57,000 students. They have not achieved the efficiencies that reduced enrollment suggests would be possible. Top-heavy bureaucracies have long hobbled the Boston schools and still deserve greater scrutiny.
Critics warn that “dark money” is supporting Yes on 2 and that corporate and financial services sectors are overrepresented on the boards of charter schools. That may be. But the business sector, while not necessarily living where the students are, know the kinds of knowledge and skills kids need to compete in the marketplace. Graduating students must be prepared for fuller participation in careers and the economy.
Charters were approved in 1993 not only to offer students educational alternatives but to be creators of innovation, their ideas optimally to be transferred to traditional public schools. We need more of that not less. Massachusetts charter schools have gotten excellent results, especially among students who have traditionally lagged behind. That’s a good thing. Yes on Question 2 would keep students moving the in the right direction.
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