End the charter school wars

End the charter school wars

A new path forward can be good for charter and district schools

IT SEEMS TO have become an annual ritual now, like taxes, the flu, or hurricane season. The charter schools war flares up to a point of intensity, sucking up all the oxygen in the education realm and consuming tons of good will and sometimes millions of dollars in the fierce clash of two orthodox cultures, each claiming the mantle of the moral high ground and exclusive possession of the best interests of children. Those caught in the treacherous middle ground between the extremes risk becoming collateral damage in this passion play, a bitter fight, over funding and control, which seldom yields a clear victor.

A decade ago, I wrote, “This perpetual, ideological war over charters reflects poorly on the education sector, and can undermine the public’s support for public education. As a field, we need to do better than dissolving annually into battle while allowing ourselves to be distracted from the substantial challenges of improving education for all our children. ‘Doing better’ will take leadership, especially from policymakers.” Sadly, this comment is every bit as relevant today as it was in 2006.

However, it isn’t that many parties and ambassadors from both sides haven’t labored mightily over the years to build bridges and forge collaborative partnerships. In fact, the work of the Boston Compact has been exemplary in this regard, but it hasn’t been enough to stop the war. So it goes on and on, year after year, taking center stage as if nothing else in the world of education matters. And still, only 4 percent of our children are enrolled in charter schools and even with the most ambitious cap lift, it’s hard to imagine that charter school enrollment will exceed 8 percent in the next decade. In other words, for the foreseeable future, 90-plus percent of public school children will be in district schools, whether we like it or not, and the Commonwealth and our cities and towns have an obligation to see that each and every one of those children receives a world class education.

We are not preparing all of our children for success now. The goal of the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 was to educate all children to high levels, and yet despite these good intentions, lots of hard work, substantial public investment, and nation-leading academic achievement, we still have some of the country’s largest achievement gaps, we have pervasive opportunity gaps, and an iron law correlation between socioeconomic status and education achievement and attainment. We have a long way to go to meet the challenge we set for ourselves in 1993. We need stronger strategies for improving teaching, curriculum and learning, early childhood access and quality, wrap-around services, out of school and summer learning opportunities, affordable colleges and college persistence to name just a few.

Charter schools have been an important part of the Commonwealth’s strategy to date. Massachusetts has produced some of the nation’s top charter schools while the charter initiative, generally, has put competitive pressure on a sometimes sluggish mainstream system. However, charter schools have been neither a silver bullet, as some proponents have promised, nor a catastrophe for public education, as charter opponents have claimed.

The reality is that we need more high quality schools, especially ones that meet the needs of those children who have too frequently been failed by mainstream schools. If charters can succeed where our municipally run schools have failed, shame on us if we don’t embrace that success. Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh are right to push in that direction. On the other hand, we have many shining examples of mainstream schools that defy the odds and deliver a high quality education to students of all backgrounds. We need to scale these successes also and to consider the impact of the growth of charters on the capacity of mainstream schools to succeed.

In the past decade, policymakers have made sincere efforts to bridge the gap between charters and the mainstream. The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 further developed the Horace Mann charter schools, which are in-district charters. At the same time, the concept of Innovation Schools, another form of autonomy for mainstream systems, was introduced. We now have over 50 Innovation Schools in the Commonwealth.

In both Horace Mann and Innovation schools, mainstream public educators are embracing some of the same opportunities available to charters but doing so in municipally controlled systems. This eliminates the competitive tension over funding, while simultaneously deepening professional responsibility for educators. Similarly, greater autonomy is being provided to educators in mainstream schools in places like Lawrence and Springfield, where the state has intervened to turn around chronically underperforming schools. These new hybridized models, mainstream schools with charter autonomies, offer great promise. The work will need careful evaluation and analysis, but it points in the direction of defusing the war.

Defusing this war would be a monumental achievement. Admittedly, it’s easy to proclaim that others should solve a seemingly insoluble dilemma. I don’t have a perfect compromise at the ready, no quick fix or silver bullet. However, here are a few principles and some ideas worth considering:

  • Look to the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 for a successful example of balanced compromise which allowed for a substantial cap lift while including provisions to enable mainstream schools to compete with charters by embracing charter-like autonomies.
  • Consider an omnibus education reform bill which encompasses needed changes and investments in other areas of education like early childhood, higher ed debt relief, or secondary school career pathways. Construct a genuine reform bill rather than isolating charter expansion in a bill by itself.
  • Avoid adding to the state’s already generous district reimbursement policy for charter seats. (The state budget now provides districts a substantial amount of reimbursement for the loss of funding that follows the students to charter schools — an attempt to soften the impact of competition.) However well-intended, this amounts to double paying for students’ education at a time when resources are desperately needed to fully fund the state’s foundation budget. Modest transition monies are justifiable for a short time, but an increase would be blatantly inefficient public policy.
  • Combine a cap lift with a fix (a significant increase) to the foundation budget, thus aiding beleaguered cities. The foundation budget, as the recent Foundation Budget Commission reported, is now out of date and woefully inadequate. The Commission’s recommendations should guide the allocation of additional state funding.
  • Create a self-adjusting capping mechanism that rises or falls based on various performance and poverty factors and does not need regular, distracting revisiting and adjustment by the Legislature.
  • Couple the cap lift with an equitable revision of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposed poverty factor, which threatens to financially undermine school systems in our Gateway Cities.
  • Link a cap lift to school turnaround policies which will need to be revised in accordance with the new federal ESSA statute (Every Student Succeeds Act).
  • Consider financial incentives – an innovation fund – to encourage the planning, development and implementation of Horace Mann and Innovation schools in the Commonwealth.
  • Consider incentives that would reward cities for implementing strong cost-saving measures, such as closing buildings and embracing more efficient insurance coverage or other efficiencies of scale. Such incentives might be financial or possibly include short-term limits on charter expansion in those communities.
  • Introduce a stronger measure of local voice into what should continue to be a state-controlled authorization process. Give local elected officials somewhat more influence (but not control) over the siting of charters in their communities.

A solution will require imagination and fortitude. Each of these suggestions, like so many others, will be lauded by some and scorned by others.

There’s no simple answer to the struggle between the mainstream schools and the charters. This tension is inevitable because of the way charters must be financed and the consequent loss of students and revenue for municipal school systems. Parents don’t care much about governance; they just want high quality, safe learning environments for their children. Some are pressing policymakers to ensure the well-being of mainstream schools while others want more charter choices. We can only ask that our policymakers take the time to make balanced, evidence-based decisions on these difficult matters while not becoming so preoccupied with resolving this conflict that they neglect to keep Massachusetts schools moving forward – reforming, innovating, improving – as the nation’s leading state education system must continue to do.

Meet the Author

In the end, a compromise must emerge that won’t be perfect for any constituency, but will advance the cause of a significantly better education for a much greater number of the Commonwealth’s children. Now’s the time for leadership.

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education.

  • Mel Westbrook

    So you are speaking for MA which is fine but a couple of items that would play out almost anywhere.

    “If charters can succeed where our municipally run schools have failed, shame on us if we don’t embrace that success.”

    And here’s my point, WHY are those schools failing? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to save a school than bring in a whole other system of schools? That’s my problem with charters. I have no love for the status quo but I don’t see the scaleable systemic change that charters are supposed to be.

    My own state, Washington, is fighting off charters mostly because we don’t fully fund the schools we have. Our Supreme Court says so, has been fining our legislature $100K a day for months because of the lack of action and now, in a special session of the legislature, the best they can do is offer a “kick the can down the road” bill because both sides can’t agree on where the money will come from.

    How do we know our schools are failing if they aren’t fully funded? (And I’ll note that in their zeal to save their own schools, charter supporters – the schools and their groups – have not ONCE in the legislative session lifted their voices for fully-funded schools. Even as they would benefit from them. It’s that kind of attitude that tends to make hard-working PTA parents a little miffed.)

    “Parents don’t care much about governance; they just want high quality, safe learning environments for their children.”

    That may be true in MA but I can categorically state that in the Seattle region, people DO care about governance and are very involved with their school district (at least to the point of clearly understanding what is going on.) Governance = local control and, for most districts in most states, local control is important.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Let’s take a closer look at Paul Reville’s principles and the ideas he says are worth considering. Charter schools can’t stand on their own merits so “rather than isolating charter expansion in a bill by itself” Reville proposes a host of ways to include more charter schools in unrelated legislation and even suggests creating “a self-adjusting capping mechanism” handled by state bureaucrats which will bypass the Legislature. But my personal favorite is how Reville addresses local concerns on charter schools. He wants to “introduce a stronger measure of local voice into what should continue to be a state-controlled authorization process. Give local elected officials somewhat more influence (but not control) over the siting of charters in their communities.” That’s how charter schools roll in Massachusetts. A “state-controlled authorization process” that locks out local elected officials but thanks to Reville’s suggestion perhaps those local elected officials will get “somewhat more influence (but not control) over the siting of charters.”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    “End the charter school wars” means more charter schools. “A new path forward can be good for charter and district schools” means cut funding for public schools.

  • John Breen
  • Pingback: Don’t Blame Bernie; Most People Don’t Get Charter Schools()

  • Max Page

    This is an endorsement of the private charter school ideology couched as a balanced view from our former Secretary of Education. But what is shocking is how little Reville cares about the impact of charters on real public schools; he even proposes getting rid of state reimbursement. In my town, we send away 1.25 million dollars every year

  • Max Page

    I must add one more point. I really can’t stand this kind of argument: The charter movement, says Reville, “generally, has put competitive pressure on a sometimes sluggish mainstream system.” Charters steal money from public schools. That’s “competitive pressure”? Our schools have less funds because of money taken by local charters, and our public schools are supposed to buck it up and get better with less? And who decided that the destructive nature of the “competitive market” is the way to build public schools? It is not, and it never was. Interestingly, the states with the best school systems are almost exclusively states with strong teacher unions. That’s a fact that he should know. But Reville endorses charters which were formed precisely to avoid having unionized teachers.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Doesn’t CommonWealth Magazine have editors to review these horrible pro-charter school commentaries? For example, Paul Reville writes “Avoid adding to the state’s already generous district reimbursement policy for charter seats. (The state budget now provides districts a substantial amount of reimbursement for the loss of funding that follows the students to charter schools — an attempt to soften the impact of competition.) However well-intended, this amounts to double paying for students’ education at a time when resources are desperately needed to fully fund the state’s foundation budget. Modest transition monies are justifiable for a short time, but an increase would be blatantly inefficient public policy.” What’s the real story with this “already generous” policy? It’s not guaranteed and it’s not fully funded. Under those circumstances then how generous is the charter school reimbursement policy? Not very. Why didn’t CommonWealth’s editors insist this commentary include those facts? Or why didn’t CommonWealth include an editor’s note at the end of this piece detailing those facts? Certainly Reville knew the facts and he carefully chose to conceal them. If someone can’t make the case for charter schools based on all the facts then shouldn’t the next question be: Why not?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Since their sign is featured prominently in the photo accompanying this commentary, how about CommonWealth Magazine’s editors assign a reporter to investigate “Great Schools?” While its public relations efforts go back to August 2015, Great Schools was officially organized on February 16, 2016…that’s according to the Secretary of State’s office. There are three people listed as officers who also serve as directors. Seems strange there aren’t more people involved, doesn’t it? All the publicity over the past 8 months and only 3 people signed up to be part of the official nonprofit spearheading more charter schools in Massachusetts. Fun fact, the official spokesperson for Great Schools isn’t one of those 3 directors, that honor goes to Eileen O’Connor an employee of Keyser Public Strategies. That company, owned by Will Keyser who was a strategist in Gov. Baker’s campaign for governor, was hired by Great Schools Massachusetts to run the “lift the cap” publicity effort. Keyser releases a constant blizzard of press releases to every single news source in Massachusetts: the AP, the State House News Service and anyone else that matters.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    CommonWealth Magazine is supposed to be about “journalism at its best: in-depth, balanced, and independent…with an emphasis on investigative reporting, in-depth analysis.” So how about showing some of that journalism with charter schools? “Investigate.” Do an “in-depth analysis.” Why keep giving a forum for charter school proponents who make a determined effort to muddy the waters, misrepresent the issues and outright lie?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    For fun, I used “Find” to count how many times Paul Reville used certain words and I wasn’t disappointed. The word “war” was used 6 times. “Charter” was used 28 times…an unbelievable 28 times. “Public school” was used once…that’s one time. The word “public” was used 6 times: two times for “public education,” and once each for “public school children,” “public investment,” “public educators,” and “blatantly inefficient public policy.” The word “district” was used 5 times. Once for “in-district charters,” twice for “district schools,” and twice in reference to the Big Lie about the not guaranteed and not fully funded “generous district reimbursement policy.”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s with the “incentives…for implementing strong cost-saving measures, such as closing buildings and embracing more efficient insurance coverage?”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    I searched for Paul Reville’s decade old quote he quoted. Google and Yahoo didn’t have it but Bing did. It’s from an article Reville wrote titled: “Stop the War: A Time for Reckoning on Charter Schools.” You can’t make this charter school stuff up. “War” showed up 4 times, “battle” was used 3 times, “dilemma” came up 3 times too, “charter” was used…and I kid you not…73 times, and “public” 9 times.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Paul Reville’s decade old article, “Stop the War: A Time for Reckoning on Charter Schools,” referenced “Minnesota’s example in allowing for the creation of charter schools.” So how are Minnesota’s charter schools doing? The Star Tribune’s article “Charter schools struggling to meet academic growth” paints a bleak picture: “Students in most Minnesota charter schools are failing to hit learning targets and are not achieving adequate academic growth…The analysis of 128 of the state’s 157 charter schools show that the gulf between the academic success of its white and minority students widened at nearly two-thirds of those schools last year. Slightly more than half of charter schools students were proficient in reading, dramatically worse than traditional public schools, where 72 percent were proficient. Between 2011 and 2014, 20 charter schools failed every year to meet the state’s expectations for academic growth each year, signaling that some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable students had stagnated academically. A top official with the Minnesota Department of Education says she is troubled by the data, which runs counter to “the public narrative” that charter schools are generally superior to public schools.”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The University of Minnesota Law School produced three studies on that state’s charter schools. Here’s a quote: “Charters are also still out-performed by traditional schools on test scores – indeed the analysis suggests that charters have taken a step backward since 2010-11.” Here’s another: “Charter schools have also generated enormous stress on the two districts in the region that serve the largest numbers of economically disadvantaged students – Minneapolis and St. Paul. Student losses to charters account for 50 to 60 percent of total enrollment declines in the two districts in the last decade. As a result, both districts have had to deal repeatedly with budget crises due in great measure to the extra costs associated with rapidly declining enrollments.”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So what’s “Couple the cap lift with an equitable revision of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposed poverty factor, which threatens to financially undermine school systems in our Gateway Cities” all about? “Gateway cities” are former industrial centers “with populations between 35,000 and 250,000; median household incomes below the state average; and below-average rates of bachelor’s degree attainment” like Lawrence and Holyoke…two of the three cities whose school systems are in state receivership right now. There are 26 Gateway Cities.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    I looked up the Achievement Gap Act of 2010, used “Find” to see how many times “charter” was used and stopped counting after I hit 150 times… “charter” was TNTC and “charter school” was TNTC. “Public” shows up as “public,” “publicly,” “public agents,” “public convenience,” “public purchases,” “publication of data,” “public comment,” “public employer,” “public employer,” “public entity,” “public hearing,” “public education financing system,” and “public safety.” “Public school district” appeared 11 times, “public schools” showed up 16 times, “public education” came up 1 time, “underperforming schools” appeared 4 times. The law probably should have been called “An Act Relative to Charter Schools.”

  • John Breen

    Let’s keep it simple: 1) Fix the funding issues; 2) fix the local control issue; 3) fix the accountability
    issues.