Charter question defeat presents new challenge

Charter question defeat presents new challenge

Are Question 2 foes ready to embrace needed district schools reforms?

IT’S A NEW YEAR and the people of Massachusetts have spoken. On Question 2, a ballot initiative which would have given urban students more charter public school options, the electorate said no.  Emphatically. But now that the teachers unions won the debate, they need to show the public that they can adopt the policies and practices that have made charter public schools so successful.

Education is a closely lived issue: Question 2 lost because a clear majority of the electorate concluded that more public school choice for others’ children came at the expense of their own.

The charter public school debate was detailed, often complicated. Few questioned charters’ academic performance. But when the discussion turned to student demographics, attrition rates and school district reimbursements, the three worst words in politics—“let me explain”— put charter proponents on the defensive.

Now that the votes are in, how should we interpret the will of the electorate?

Would a less dramatic increase in public school options in failing districts have had a better chance of winning? The decisive 62-38 margin renders that question moot.  It will be a few years before legislators move such a proposal.

The message sent by some thoughtful voters was this: Why create a workaround (charter schools) to the real problems in our district schools?

Opponents of charter schools built on that view by asserting that Massachusetts needs to increase spending in our district schools. The problem with that argument is that since 1993, billions of dollars in additional state aid have been invested in urban districts, making them today among the nation’s best-funded public schools. Yet the impact of that investment has been at best modest improvement for students. Meanwhile, charters have proven to be highly effective options for parents.

No on 2 activists also argued that instead of creating new public school options, we need to apply charter-like flexibilities and best practices in our district schools.

While a rational perspective, it ignores lots of history. Twenty years ago, as a response to the advent of charter public schools, the Boston Teachers Union created pilot schools; the state followed with the establishment of Horace Mann (unionized) charter schools.

In the 2000s, the state created other district options like Commonwealth pilot schools and innovation schools. While in individual instances, these options may have had success, none of them has performed at remotely as high a level or with the consistency of charter public schools.

The reason district schools have a less-than-stellar reform record is that charter-style reforms require a wholesale change in thinking. Here are just a few of the best practices from charter public schools: longer school days and years focused on academic learning, flexible staffing and hiring, no seniority privileges, consistent teacher-to-teacher discussions of instructional strategies and individual student needs, small group and one-on-one tutoring, curricular improvements including programs like the International Baccalaureate or Core Knowledge, relentless communication with parents, intensive remediation, and strategies to build culture and to advance character education.

A comprehensive list of lessons from charter public schools would be much longer, but even for this short list, the question is: Do urban school districts have the courage to apply them?

If not, the No on 2 campaign, which raised almost all of its money from teachers’ unions, spent over $20 million to reinforce the status quo. That amounts to ensuring that tens of thousands of inner-city students continue to be left behind.

Meet the Author

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

  • emilyzola

    1. “the teachers unions won the debate”

    The teachers unions didn’t win the debate. Public school
    families won the debate. Overwhelmingly. To continue to attempt to frame this
    issue as one of labor negotiations is offensively manipulative and frankly
    futile. People know by now that your false narrative is motivated by money and
    the hunger for power, and they’re not buying it. The Pioneer Institute has an
    agenda, and the public knows that the agenda is not to promote their best
    interests. The jig, as they say, is up.

    2. ” a clear majority of the electorate concluded
    that more public school choice for others’ children came at the expense of
    their own”

    The electorate knew all along that the unchecked proliferation
    of charters would siphon funds from already underfunded public schools. More
    money makes schools perform better. Weld knew that, which is why our public
    schools were for a time the best in the nation. We need to get back to that place.
    We know how to get there.

    3. ” the three worst words in politics—’let me
    explain'”

    If explaining your position makes it less attractive to
    people, consider that your position may be inherently wrong.

    4. At this point the intricacies of school budgets have been gone over and over, so I’ll just
    reiterate that charters perform well by cherry-picking students — forcing out
    those students who don’t perform. Charters are also fundraising machines —
    traditional public schools are unable to fundraise on their own. Despite this,
    Boston Public Schools perform on par with area charters, and in fact have far
    lower rates of college attrition — kids who go to college stay in college,
    because they have learned flexible thought and growth mindset, instead of just
    learning to the test in order to boost scores. BPS is one of the best public
    school systems in the country. Why? Because we have the most highly qualified
    teachers. Why? Because we pay them what they’re worth. So enough already with
    the fiction of the overpaid teacher in the failing school. BPS teachers make
    less than the guy writing this article, and unlike him they change lives and
    make the world a better place.

    5. You want public schools to have longer days, smaller
    classes, on-on-one tutoring, etc etc.? Great! So do we. The only thing holding
    us back is money. So why not use your voice and your power to advocate for
    public school funding to get us all that great stuff? We’ll take arts
    education, full-time nurses and librarians, and science and media teachers and
    labs too, thanksverymuch.

    • berkman34

      To your point #2: Massachusetts public schools are the best in the nation. AND on the last international test rank #2 in the world.

      • Sam Donald

        Jesus you are a moron

  • emilyzola

    And let’s call “flexible staffing and hiring, no seniority privileges” what it is — hiring unqualified, inexperienced, unprepared teachers, and firing them when they get to a certain pay grade. No thanks. Our state is NOT BROKE. Our city is NOT BROKE. We pay for the things we value, and the voters have shown that we value public education. We value our teachers. They are paid a living wage. Nobody goes into teaching to get rich. Enough with this teacher-bashing.
    It’s particularly galling to hear a real, difficult, impactful job like teaching bashed by someone who works for an all-white organization and makes a living thinking of ways to make rich people richer.

    Enough. Enough already. Enough.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Even now, CommonWealth is trying to give the impression Question 2 was an urban vs. suburban issue with its accompanying photo “Suburban charter opposition: A sign opposing Question 2 on a Brookline lawn” when the urban vote against Question 2 was just as decisive as the suburban vote. And exactly what’s going on with the subtitle “Are Question 2 foes ready to embrace needed district schools reforms?” The only reform voters want is for the state legislature and Governor to fully fund the Foundation Budget, fix the flawed and underfunded charter school reimbursement formula and overhaul how charter schools are financed to stop the funding drain from public schools.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    “Few questioned charters’ academic performance?” Memo to Jim Stergios…that was front and center in the Question 2 debate once the first crack appeared in the charter schools public relations façade. Staged rallies, countless commercials/OpEd pieces/commentaries and tens of millions of dollars in big, dark, out-of-state money couldn’t patch that crack.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So how much does Jim Stergios make as the executive director of the Pioneer Institute? Stergios took home $229,661 in 2015. Wouldn’t you expect someone making that kind of money could make his case with honest to goodness facts? Why did he mention 1993 without telling the whole story? Because then he’d run into some pesky facts. The 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act set education standards, authorized 25 charter schools and established the Foundation Budget…the state’s mechanism distributing aid to local public school districts but all of that didn’t come out of nowhere. In 1978 a court case was brought on behalf of students in certain property-poor communities who alleged that the school finance system violated the education clause of the Massachusetts Constitution. The case took FIFTEEN YEARS to work its way through the court system…with one entire generation of Massachusetts school children attending underfunded public schools…the court finally AGREED in 1993 and the state legislature finally acted…Then it took seven years for the state to double its financial commitment to local public school districts from 1993 to 2000. So TWENTY-TWO YEARS after the court case was first filed… Massachusetts met its financial obligation to public education first identified in a 1978 court case and addressed in law in 1993. In 2010 the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education released a report, “School Funding Reality: A Bargain Not Kept How is the Foundation Budget Working?” finding “Over the 17 years since the Education Reform Act passed, there has been virtually no equalization in spending or state aid between rich districts and poor.” In 2015, the same year Stergios raked in more a quarter of million dollars undermining public schools in commentaries like this and through the Pioneer Institute’s efforts, the “Foundation Budget Review Commission Final Report” was released finding a massive shortfall in state aid to public education in areas including English language learning, low income and special education. That’s the funding story Stergios conveniently ignores.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s the real story on the “best practices” from charter public schools? Of the supposedly best practices listed by Stergios, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education only recognized one as a real “best practice.” That’s the International Baccalaureate Program…out of 36 “best practices” from 21 charter schools cited by DESE. Another best practice is from the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School: “Facing Restructuring: How a Strong School Faced Failure.” That Boston charter school had very low math MCAS scores and dismal adequate yearly progress “…Confronting restructuring sanctions as well as state review of its charter, Banneker faced high stakes. The school was only able to reverse the restructuring process and save its charter through strong leadership, positive media attention, and pressing on with its already successful math campaign.” Note the “positive media attention” ingredient.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s great about Jim Stergios not having facts to support his pro-charter position is that doesn’t stop him from making up facts like “No on 2 activists also argued that instead of creating new public school options, we need to apply charter-like flexibilities and best practices in our district schools.” Does anyone remember even one No on 2 person saying anything like that? I certainly don’t. Was Stergios a Yes on 4 supporter as well?

    • berkman34

      You are correct. That NEVER happened.

      • Sam Donald

        Sure it did moron

        • berkman34

          No loser, it did not. I say loser because you obviously lost the vote and you are obviously a loser as a person. But if you can tell us when the No on 2 activists, of which I was one, said such a thing, please do so.

          • Sam Donald

            You are the loser. And a fool. And a liberal. Go away

  • emilyzola

    Stergios and his ilk are still trying to pit charter and public school families against each other. Another false narrative. Many of us have had both charter and public school experience. Our families, friends, and neighbors have kids in charters. We’re allies in the fight for the best educational opportunities for kids. What we are actually rallying against isn’t the existence of charters. It’s the unchecked proliferation of charters that has led to the destruction of all forms of public schools in every city in which it’s been allowed to happen. And who rises from the ashes of the destruction? Organizations like the Pioneer Institute, and advocates of educational profiteering like Trump’s pick for Education Secretary. You’re in great company there, Stergios.

  • Andrei Radulescu-Banu

    Maybe the reform effort could be redirected to improve the infrastructure supporting the public schools on the back end: education schools, MTEL, salarization steps, state review of curricular materials, state inspections in public schools run by the cities and towns.

  • berkman34

    I “love” how it is always the “failing public schools” with these people. Since the “failing schools” are predominately in economically depressed cities, why isn’t it the “failing private sector, who cannot create jobs for the 100’s of thousands of people in need of these jobs.” What about the “failing medical professionals” who fail to have inner city residents (of these poor cities in particular) to have the same level of health as say Dover or Wellesley.
    First, charters do not out perform publics in the aggregate. Both sides can cherry-pick their high performing schools. The one and only reason charters perform at an arguably comparable level is that they can utilize methods of forcing students they don’t want, to leave. REAL public schools cannot do that because it is against the law!!!

  • skepticwithcommonsense

    Jim Stergios’ article makes it clear that Pioneer Institute is only for charters and
    vouchers–and mainly only for low-income parents. He doesn’t note that a
    huge amount of money FOR question 2 came from out-of-state. And that
    parent groups want to get rid of Common Core and that most parents don’t
    see any reason to vote for charters and vouchers, since they don’t have
    much if any choice of a school curriculum, which is what they wanted. It is not insignificant that Governor Baker is not trusted by most parents on his handling of Common Core and on this now-dead question 2. If Gov. Baker were to appoint a Secretary of Education with no ties to the Gates Foundation, he might be more successful in articulating a believable position on Charters while also getting rid of Common Core. But that’s like whistling in the dark.