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.

Meet the Author

Jim Stergios

Executive Director, Pioneer Institute
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.

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