A charter convert

Tenure as Springfield mayor convinced me to embrace competition and choice

I WAS MAYOR of Springfield and chairman of the city’s school committee when the Massachusetts Education Reform Act passed in 1993. As a Democrat, and now a Boston resident, I am a strong supporter of public education, and I want all school districts to be high performing. I once believed that the path to better schools was to hire a dynamic, reform-oriented superintendent and to support basic reforms. Springfield had a superb, reform-oriented superintendent, but he was stymied far too often by veto groups associated with the education establishment.

Somewhat reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the best path to improve poor performing urban schools is to create competition and to give parents a choice. This is particularly important for the poorest minority parents who cannot afford the option available to middle class parents – to send their children to private or parochial schools when dissatisfied with the local district school. Lifting the cap on public charter schools is the right direction for my party, my city, and for Massachusetts.

In 1993, the Springfield school committee, the superintendent, and I decided that we did not want a new, stand-alone public charter school. Instead, we decided to challenge a charter school organization to take over the poorest performing elementary school in the city. We chose the SABIS charter school organization, and we turned over the second lowest performing elementary school among 29 in Springfield. To accomplish this, we closed the district school in June and SABIS re-opened it in September as a charter school with the exact same students.

From the beginning, SABIS charter school students reflected the demographic makeup of the Springfield public schools.  Three-fourths were black or Hispanic, and nearly all students were from low-income families.

In four years, the SABIS charter school went from 28th to the best performing elementary school in the city. Later, a high school was added, and today SABIS operates a set of highly successful elementary and secondary public schools with the longest waiting list in the city. Since 2001, when the first high school class was graduated, there have been 16 graduating classes where 100 percent of the students were admitted to college.

SABIS is one example of what public charter schools are accomplishing in Massachusetts.  Boston also has some outstanding charter schools that consistently outperform the district schools. There are also some failures, and under state law, all charter schools are audited annually, and poorly performing charters have been forced to close by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As in Springfield, special interest groups in Boston are protecting the status quo. Boston has some of the highest paid teachers and administrators in America, with average salaries at $91,000, yet Boston has one of the shortest school days in the Commonwealth. There was a strong push for a longer school day in the last round of contract negotiations; nevertheless, the teachers’ union successfully blocked the effort, just as it has blocked merit pay for teachers and changes in work rules that stifle quality education.

As a middle-class parent, I had choices for my children. Why is it not in the progressive tradition of the Democratic Party to give urban families the same choice as middle-class parents to send their children to a different and often better school?

Critics of charter schools argue that they take resources away from local district schools. Why do failing district schools that resist fundamental change deserve to keep their existing resources? If district schools are losing students and resources to charter schools, they have a choice to either restructure and provide better education, or to face loss of staff and eventual closing. This sounds harsh, but the failure of district schools to change and the lobbying of organized interests against real reform leave us only one choice to stop wasting the lives of children in our failing city schools:  Create competition and offer the choice of a charter school.

Question 2 on the November ballot authorizes new public charter schools in areas with low-performing district schools. School choice is particularly important in older cities where district schools are often choked with bureaucracy, poor leadership, and union work rules.

Meet the Author
Given the implacable hostility of teachers’ unions to charter schools, voters must choose between their powerful special interest groups and better educational opportunities for children.

Robert Markel was mayor of Springfield from 1992 to 1996.