Why You Should Care About a Charter School Cap in Massachusetts

May 3, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Justin Cohen

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has always been the cradle of innovation and success for American public schools. The country’s first public schools were in the Bay State, professional teacher preparation started here and Horace Mann himself was our first education secretary. In more modern times, the state was among the first to adopt high education standards in 1993, and Massachusetts is the only U.S. state whose overall performance stands up to the highest performers in the rest of the world. If Massachusetts were a country, it would rank as high as Finland, the current reigning champion in the international education sweepstakes. There is an underside, though, to educational attainment in Massachusetts. Despite high overall scores, the opportunity gap between white students and their peers of color is wider than almost anywhere in the country. This disparity is underscored by a dark history of racial injustice, as the desegregation of the Boston schools in the 1970s exposed rampant racism and classism, at both systemic and individual levels—the effects of which linger today in the disparity between the opportunities in Boston and its suburbs.

The Demand Is There, So Why the Cap?

While education in Massachusetts can expose tensions between innovation and equity, one place where those ideals harmonize is in the state’s extraordinary public charter schools. While charter school performance nationally is not uniform, Boston’s public charter schools are notable for being the absolute strongest in the country, all while serving a higher proportion of students of color and low-income students, than comparable traditional schools. [pullquote]It should be no surprise, then, that there are over 30,000 students on waitlists for the state’s charters.[/pullquote] What is surprising, however, is our legislature’s commitment to maintaining an arbitrary statutory cap on the growth of new charter schools. Despite clear demand from families and stellar results, the cap on new schools has not budged since 2010, with the primary hold-up happening in the state Senate, where suburban legislators dominate the education conversation. While I can’t fault those suburban legislators for minding their own constituencies—that is, after all, their job—their insistence on preventing the growth of new charter schools in Boston and other cities is inexcusable. Because of the Senate’s intransigence, a group of petitioners collected signatures in order to put the question of raising the charter schools cap on the ballot for this November’s elections. Unless a bill passes during the current legislative session—which seems unlikely, given that the senate’s recent attempt was panned by activists on every side of the issue—Massachusetts voters will have a chance to opine directly on the cap.

If You're Not Convinced, Here's Some More Reasons 

During this National Charter Schools Week, there are a few reasons to watch this issue.


    1. First and foremost, if you are a parent in Boston, this initiative affects you directly, even though politicians have a vested interest in making it sound like it’s more complicated.


Opponents of the measure will frame the ballot question in terms of money for traditional schools, which obscures the real issue: Great charter schools provide more options for our most vulnerable families, those who don’t have the same luxuries as their peers with more resources and mobility.

Opponents of the measure plan to blame charters for taking money away from traditional public schools, but the real culprits are the lingering effects of the recession and local property taxation policies, not the relatively small number of charters. While charter schools are a drop in the fiscal bucket, they provide an easy target for voters whose children have the luxury of attending high performing schools in their suburban neighborhoods.



    1. Second, while other states have held referenda on charter school statutes, this fall will be the first time an enrollment cap will be on a ballot anywhere in the country. It will be interesting to see how the politics shake out; suburbanites shouldn’t be able to further limit the opportunities of children in low-income communities, but that’s what will happen if they turn out in force to reject this measure.


Reformers around the country have been exploring alternative venues for driving educational change—like the courts—and this initiative will be an interesting test case for the effectiveness of the ballot as a venue.


    1. Finally, this is a good reminder to educators, particularly reformers, that politics matter. If results and demand were sufficient to win the argument, the unimpeachably good charters in Boston would be able to grow and flourish. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as politics, money, and power matter when talking about public schooling.


Those seeking educational change must continue to supplement their piercing logic with an imposing political ground game, which hopefully will mean creating even more room for parents and communities to take greater leadership over the education agenda.

Justin Cohen

Previously, Justin Cohen was president of Boston-based education nonprofit Mass Insight Education, where he helped cities and states around the country rethink how we serve our most vulnerable children. Justin has also worked in the D.C. Public Schools and was on the education policy committee for President Obama's 2008 campaign. He serves as board chairman for Students for Education Reform and has spent five years as academic committee chair for the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools. Justin writes about education policy on his blog where he tries to piece together the story of how our system became obsolete, why it fails too many children and families and what we can do to design a better way forward.

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