By Patricia Nolan and Jan Devereux
The ballot initiative to potentially increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts is generating passionate debate. Examining deeply what is best for all students and valuing equity and outcomes, we will be voting “Yes.”
The first thing all voters must know is that Massachusetts charter schools, like our traditional public schools, are the best in the nation. Period. And none of the existing Massachusetts charter schools are run by and only three managed by a for-profit. In fact, the NEA guide on what makes for a successful charter school describes how Massachusetts charter schools operate. We need our state to continue to lead the way, so other states’ charter models don’t compromise the promise of education reform.
Charter schools are public schools, open to all, subject to all laws and DESE rules. Yes, some charter schools are not as representative – enrolling fewer English Language Learners [ELL] and students with disabilities [SWD]. That’s why several years ago the state stepped in and now holds schools accountable for increasing those proportions. Which led to the percent of SWD and ELL in charter schools rising. It should be noted that the three charter schools in Cambridge have a higher percentage of “high needs” students than our district and far higher percentage of students of color. And contrary to some assertions, attrition rates and discipline rates are similar in charter schools and traditional schools. Mobility varies also – it is not only from charter schools that students leave during the year.
The reason everyone in Cambridge and the state who cares about equity in education should vote yes on 2 is that our charter schools work for exactly the population they were designed to serve: low-income, in urban systems, students of color. Studies by Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have all concluded that for urban students Massachusetts and especially Boston charter schools do demonstrably, significantly better than traditional public schools. Comparing test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, college persistence, percentage who need to take remedial classes in college, percentage who complete college – those indicators show a decided advantage of charter schools. That includes studies comparing students who applied to charters and didn’t get in and those who did – meaning it corrects for selection bias – the argument that charter school results are skewed because their students applied.
Test scores are not the only measure of schools, but by those measures, the results are clear. The results released just last week confirm that in grade 10 results the two Cambridge charter high schools did better overall including higher scores for African Americans and SWD. For Boston charter schools, compared to non-exam Boston Public Schools, the differences are even more compelling: far higher test scores for all groups especially African Americans, and also for the increasing numbers of ELL and SWD. Results like that explain the Bay State Banner endorsement of YES.
We strongly value choice, including in schools, and love that Cambridge has school choice, implemented in the face of a desegregation order. In our city many – far more than in most districts – opt out of public schools and go to private schools. We cannot in good conscience vote to limit the choices for those families who cannot afford that option. In Cambridge and Massachusetts those choosing charter schools are overwhelmingly low-income families of color who believe their children will be better served. We have visited each Cambridge charter and one of us worked in one. The schools welcome community members to visit. They’d love to share their successes and learn from ours. They want innovation to go both ways, but cannot force anyone to listen.
Cambridge charter schools receive $11.5 million to educate residents choosing charters. That money doesn’t come from our property taxes – charter tuition comes out of state aid to Cambridge – it is not our district’s money. It is educational money for students who live in Cambridge. When a student from Cambridge chooses Minuteman Vocational Technical School, the city pays tuition. Same with charter schools which educate 476 Cantabrigians. For us to educate that many more, we’d need a new school building. We would not save much money. In other districts, the funding challenge is different and should be addressed. Focus on that – not on limiting choices. We challenge opponents to address the funding – come up with a solution instead of stopping the growth of charter schools. As for accountability, it is higher for charter schools. First, getting a charter is extremely difficult– and the state monitors performance very closely. When is the last time a regular public school was closed for non-performance? Charters have only been around for 25 years and there are only 80 in the state, yet already five have been closed.
The ballot initiative only authorizes “up to” 12 schools, with preference for schools in low-performing districts close to the cap where there is demand. That’s nine districts. Theoretically other districts could apply, but most could apply now, regardless of the ballot question. There are no charter schools in most districts in the state – Lexington, Brookline, Newton – since families feel well served by traditional public schools. Without parent demand, charters don’t open. Cambridge charters give preference to residents, yet can’t fill their seats with city residents, since not enough apply now.
The bill is not perfect. And honestly as proud liberal Democrats we wish there wasn’t dark or out-of-state or ANY money going into either side. We wish every dollar – on both sides – was going to elect Clinton. However, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s allow our charter schools to continue to provide educational models and work together – they are all our children.
Patricia Nolan is a School Committee member. Jan Devereux is a Cambridge city councilor.