Charter narrative gets story wrong

Inadequate resources the real problem at so-called "failing" district schools

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens. – John Updike

AS THE CHARTER school debate continues to blaze, in this state and across the country, it is helpful to examine the narrative which is driving this push by charter advocates to increase the number of charter schools. Charter school advocates assert that every child is entitled to a high-quality educational experience and that traditional public schools, particularly in our urban areas, are “failing” in their duty to provide such services.

We have for the past 20 years or so labored under our current educational policy agenda centered upon state standards, standardized assessments and punitive consequences for schools for failure to meet those standards. As a result of these polices, overall performance on tests such as NAEP and PISA showed some improvement, but gaps still exists between the aggregate scores for all students and some subgroups such as those delineated by race, economic status and/or students with disabilities. However, rather than blame the policies that drive this system for these gaps, the blame for that failure is being placed upon the districts and schools responsible for implementing them.

Charter school advocates now have us include within this narrative that charter schools are inherently better than public schools and thus we should have more of them to allow parents the “choice” of a better education for their children. The data does not bear out this viewpoint, however, as although there are some high-performing charter schools, just as there are high-performing traditional public schools, when taken in the aggregate, charters do not score appreciably higher on state assessments. Additionally, recent studies seem to shed light on the fact that charter students may be less prepared than their traditional public school counterparts for success in college and careers.

The idea of charter schools has now gone well beyond the mission for which they were originally conceived. Charters were never designed to replace public schools, but rather to fill the gaps for specific populations of students and as a laboratory for innovations that could then be shared with traditional public schools, thereby serving to improve the system as a whole. This sharing of innovative practices has yet to come to fruition and often charters themselves seem reluctant to participate in that practice.

As an example, let’s take a look at the publicly available employment contract for the Rising Tide Public Charter School in Plymouth. According to the language found in the confidentiality provision of the employment contract for the school, teachers are prohibited from sharing information with others which “includes but is not limited to matters of a technical nature such as methods of instruction, curriculum development, proposed changes to curriculum, and similar items…” This demonstrates that not only are charters uninterested in sharing any practices with public schools, their teachers are, at least at this school, specifically prohibited from doing so.

In addition to this hurdle, the 2014 report of state Auditor Suzanne Bump found, among other flaws in the accountability and oversight by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, that the mechanisms for “sharing” of innovative practices had not even been established. Consequently, although substantial questions remain about the accountability, oversight, and funding of charter schools, we are to believe that the solution is to increase their number.

Competition for scarce resources from the state also adds to the complexity of this question. Policy makers who favor our current system often like to assert that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning, coupled with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test, propelled our Commonwealth on an upward trajectory from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world. However, what those same individuals overlook, or at best downplay, is the massive infusion of money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding last year that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. In McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary new legislative action.

Today, however, rather than explore policy changes that might remedy this situation, charter advocates assert that we must increase the number of charter schools so that students have the “choice” to attend a higher performing school. This argument defies logic, as the creation of more charter schools would strip even more resources from struggling schools in our neediest communities already found to be underfunded by the review commission. What will this do other than exacerbate the disparity and increase the challenges faced by our neediest schools and populations?

One need only look to the disarray created in other large urban environments, such as Chicago and Detroit, to see the educational chaos that results from charter caps and regulations that are too loose, allowing for the creation of weak charters that fail to meet the needs of their student populations. There is a reason that millions of dollars are pouring into Massachusetts from out of state interests in support of more charters in this state.

Right now in Massachusetts we have relatively few charter school run by for-profit management companies. Raising the cap on charters in the Commonwealth could result in a system that sees the influx of more of these entities, risking the results found across the country when profit is placed before educational considerations. Please let us remember that these are public funds that those entities are using to profit themselves.

I can already hear charter advocates complaining that this is a doomsday scenario. However, that is but one risk inherent in this push to increase the number of charters in our state. The argument that increased numbers of charters creates a competitive environment where traditional public schools will be encouraged rise to the occasion fails to take into account that in competition there is always a winner and a loser.

Meet the Author

None of our children should be losers when it comes to access to a free and appropriate public education. It is time to ignore the false doors and find the door that opens to supporting educational opportunities for all our children.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow public schools.