Three Things to Consider About Charter Schools and the Fight to Lift the Cap in Massachusetts

Nov 4, 2016 12:00:00 AM


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I have been participating in and following many discussions about charter schools and Massachusetts Ballot Question 2—deciding whether the current cap on charter schools should be lifted to allow for the expansion of 12 new charter schools per year—over the last several weeks. It is gratifying that almost all of these discussions have been intelligent, civil and motivated by a sincere wish on everyone’s part that all children in Massachusetts receive the education they need and deserve. In considering the concerns expressed by those who have reservations about Question Two, there seem to be three that come up most frequently. I would like to address those issues because there is a significant amount of misunderstanding and misinformation that may be influencing people’s views. What follows is all said with a view to the situation of schools in urban communities because that is where Question Two seeks to expand charter schools and that is obviously where we have the largest educational challenges.
  1. Charter schools take money away from district schools. As strange as this may sound, the exact opposite is true. Under Massachusetts law, when a family decides to change from a district school to a charter school, the school district receives from the state a portion of the per student budget allotment for the next five years!   The rationale for these payments is to give ample time for the school district to adapt to changing enrollment patterns by gradually reducing fixed costs. The direct effect of the payments is that the per student budget of the school district actually increases: the total budget of the district doesn’t increase but they have fewer students to serve, thereby increasing the per student budget amount they have to spend to educate the children that remain. With sound management practices, there is no reason that this extra money can’t be used to better serve the children that remain.
  2. Charter schools have unfair advantages over district schools that explain why they are successful. It is this area that perhaps has the most misinformation in play and that has the easiest methods available of correcting that bad information. First, spend some time on the Massachusetts Department of Education website and you will see that:
    • Students are enrolled in charter schools based on a blind lottery so charter schools don’t somehow get “the best students” to begin with;
    • Charter schools enroll high numbers of low-income, English language-learners and special needs students and in many cases have a higher percentage of these students than the local district schools; and
    • Charters schools in Massachusetts (unlike charter schools in many other states) are subject to substantial oversight and reporting requirements by the state so that criticisms that might be applicable to charter schools in other states are not applicable here.
    Second, visit a high performing charter school and see for yourself what is really making them successful:
    • The ability to hire, coach, and retain outstanding teachers;/li>
    • A major focus on developing a strong school culture that combines high expectations and demanding work with even higher levels of support and encouragement; and
    • Proactive strategies to engage families who are able to be a part of their children’s education and specific services and support for children whose family situations do not permit that.
  3. We should be fixing all schools so that every kid gets the benefit of a good education. I couldn’t agree more. The reality is that there is nothing being done in successful charter schools today that couldn’t be done in any district school tomorrow if administrators and teachers simply agreed to do them and the teachers unions collective bargaining agreement governing the school was amended to reflect that agreement.    But education reform has been on the nation’s agenda since the mid-1970s. What we are faced with today is 40 years of failed attempts at urban public school reform, with billions of additional dollars provided to urban schools during that time and nothing to show for it. Question Two will benefit low-income and minority families in poorly performing urban school districts right now. Can we with any conscience tell them at this point, “not yet—you must wait longer still.” After all this time, how can they have any confidence that real reform will ever come? How can we expect them to have trust in the larger community if we continue to tolerate the intolerable? After 40 years of failing so many children, how can we deny these families this chance for their kids?
But in truth we are not even faced with an either/or situation when it comes to Question Two. By voting "yes" for the expansion of charter schools we are giving as many low-income and minority children as possible, as soon as possible, the chance for a better life that a good education brings. We are also making it clear that all schools who are currently struggling must, once and for all, do what is necessary to give that same chance to their students.

David M. Prentiss

David M. Prentiss serves on the advisory council of the Alma del Mar Charter School. He lives and works in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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