Charter showdown

A charter school leader and teachers union president debate the ballot question

IN NOVEMBER, MASSACHUSETTS voters will have their say on a ballot question that would allow up to 12 new or expanded charter schools each year above the existing state cap on the independently-run, but publicly-funded, schools. The issue has inflamed passions on both sides. We asked two prominent Boston education leaders, Jon Clark, co-director of Brooke Charter Schools, who supports Question 2, and Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, who opposes it, to weigh in. Over the course of several days they exchanged views by email.



Jon Clark, co-director of the Brooke Charter Schools in Boston.

Jon Clark, co-director of the Brooke Charter Schools in Boston.

Throughout our nation’s history, our schools have failed to adequately educate our students of color and our low-income students. That remains true today.

In Boston and in other large cities across our country, our schools face obstacles that suburban schools do not, due to poverty and our nation’s enduring legacy of racism. But we, as a society, must accept responsibility for the fact that we have not adequately risen to those challenges. In Boston, on the 2015 PARCC, white students scored proficient at three times the rate of black students in math and at twice the rate of black students in reading. We continue to routinely fail our low-income students and our students of color. Too many of us have become far too complacent about that reality.

In Boston and in other cities across the Commonwealth, charter public schools are helping to answer that challenge. Numerous independent studies have shown that students in these schools are effectively closing racial and income-based achievement gaps. That is why tens of thousands of families are on charter public school waiting lists in Massachusetts. Those families desperately want nothing more than to provide their children with a great education.

We can have more of these game-changing public schools. Each one will provide opportunity to families of low-income students and students of color. And each one will contribute to the effort in our urban districts to address this crisis with the sense of urgency and resolve that it demands of us.



Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman

Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman

Our public school system is our most important resource—on that we probably agree. Our task is to improve and support our public school system while maintaining its basic premise to offer a free and equal education to all who walk through its doors.

Our schools face many challenges, not the least of which is working with those most in need—those most vulnerable—to gain the skills and knowledge they need to become productive, thoughtful members of society. We welcome those challenges and deserve no special credit. It’s our responsibility to educate all. Many charter schools avoid that responsibility by cherry-picking their students by a variety of not-so-subtle methods. Our public schools do not discriminate.

Parents recognize that we have a system of excellent and improving schools. The waiting list for Boston parents seeking a spot in the Boston Public Schools last year exceeded 21,000. It was an accurate list and in fact it exceeded the number of people awaiting Massachusetts charter seats that are housed in Boston.

We need to support our schools and keep public dollars in the Boston Public Schools working to serve all. This year the city stands to lose more than $150 million in funding from the state to Boston-based charters, most of whom practice discriminatory admission policies. We need to keep public resources in our public schools. Our students, a majority of whom are low-income and students of color, and one-third of whom are English language learners, deserve no less.



We agree that the premise of public education is to provide a free, high-quality education to all. But our city and our country have never lived up to that premise. We have historically and systematically not provided an equal or adequate education to low-income students and students of color. The fact that there are waiting lists for some Boston Public Schools proves that many low-income families and families of color are acutely aware that their kids aren’t currently receiving the education they need and deserve.

That is why charter public schools have been a critical addition to our public schooling system. Charter schools are public schools that provide opportunity to children of families who have historically been denied it. Charter school students are not “cherry-picked.” MIT and Harvard studies long ago debunked those allegations, proving conclusively that selection bias cannot explain the high achievement of low-income students and students of color in charter public schools.

The funding that goes to Boston charters educates kids who desperately need and deserve a great public education. It’s the same amount per student that goes to educate students in the Boston Public Schools. As one of our parents said the other day, “my child is not a drain on the system.” The opportunity to send her child to a charter public school has allowed her and parents like her to empower themselves and to ensure that their children get the education they wholly deserve, but have historically been denied.



We agree that our mission is to provide a free, high-quality education to all. But charters fail to live up to that promise; at charters “education to all” has become “education for some.” Charters do show decent results on a single standardized test, as we do—though using any single measure to gauge achievement has limited reliability and use. The more important question is to look beyond the single test and ask ourselves whether charters have chosen to service a selective subgroup of students.

Brooke’s schools educate few students with disabilities and even fewer who are English language learners (ELLs) than a representative enrollment of Boston students would require. Our public schools serve a student demographic, 30 percent of whom are ELLs; Brooke’s ELL population is 6 percent. Regarding students with disabilities, our public schools’ demographic is 20 percent; Brooke’s is 8 percent. How does Brooke rationalize this disparity?  Why should we allow schools that discriminate and cherry-pick their students to expand?

All students are important, students with disabilities and English language learners alike. Charters should open their doors to all, work to retain all, and join with us to provide the best we can both offer.

To prove the point: Since July 2016 the Boston Public Schools have accepted more than 150 children with special needs who have transferred in from Boston-based charters. Those aren’t numbers—they’re children. These children deserve to be educated. Until all children get the education they deserve from charters, every dollar lost from our public schools is a drain on what should be an education for all.



Boston charter public schools attract families who have been denied access to educational opportunity—particularly black and Latino families. Do you not believe that the district has an obligation to better educate our black and Latino kids? For each of the last 10 years, Boston English language learner students have outperformed African-American students on the math MCAS/PARCC test.

In Boston charters, 17 percent of students are in special education programs and 14 percent are identified as English language learners. But charters aren’t monolithic. For every Brooke Roslindale Charter School (2.5 percent ELL) there is Match charter schools (33 percent ELL). There is wide variation among charters, just as there is in district schools (none of which you accuse of discriminatory enrollment practices—even those that are disproportionately white!).

ELL status (and to some extent special education status) should not be a permanent badge. Brooke opened a new campus in 2012 to serve more English language learners. Over 50 percent of Brooke East Boston students are now or were formerly identified as English language learners. But, for every Brooke child who is currently identified as an English language learner, there are three who have exited ELL status. In the Boston Public Schools, current English language learners outnumber former ELL’s by 2:1.

A recent MIT study found that in Boston, special education and ELL students are making substantially more progress in charter public schools than in district public schools. At Brooke, ELL and special education students are out-performing regular education students in the district.  Shouldn’t that kind of progress be the goal for all of our kids who our city has historically never served well?



I don’t buy the argument that it’s acceptable to discriminate and cherry-pick students in order to obtain a higher MCAS test score. The goals of equal access and high achievement are not mutually exclusive. The BPS strives for both.

The Boston Public Schools take a back seat to no one in urban America, according to NAEP test results in math and reading across the same subgroups you mention. (See here.) We also practice equal access. Our schools don’t counsel out poor-performing students. We welcome them.

We’re not arguing that charters don’t achieve some success on the MCAS—but it comes at a cost of denying equal access to all. And that’s a price our public schools are not willing to pay.

It’s great that charters have finally begun to look at increasing enrollments of English language learners and students with disabilities. It’s unfortunate, however, that it took 20 years and the 2010 Achievement Gap legislation to bring this about. And even though charters corrected course a bit, they still avoid and counsel out children who are more challenging and expensive to teach. At the East Boston Brooke and Excel charter schools, for example, there are 130 English language learners enrolled. Only one student of 130 (0.8 percent) is enrolled at either Level 1 or 2 (of 5), which are the most challenging levels. In the Boston public schools, it’s 14 percent.

Charters’ progress has been too little, too late. That’s why we need to keep our public dollars in public schools, and avoid promoting the expansion of schools that discriminate.



Data simply don’t support your recycled assertions. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data show that attrition is significantly lower in charters than in district schools; charters don’t counsel kids out. State analysis shows that charter English language learner enrollment “has steadily increased and is now approaching the enrollment at Boston district schools”; charters don’t discriminate. A recent MIT study finds: “Those with the most severe needs…perform significantly better in charters”; charter schools don’t “avoid” kids.

Despite the evidence, you insist that enrollment at charter schools is inequitable. Why then don’t you join us in advocating for a common enrollment system in Boston?  Let’s have charter schools and district schools enroll kids using the same rules under the same system.

You have yet to answer my question about our responsibility to our black and Latino kids, but insist that all is well in Boston: BPS “takes a backseat to no one.” I’m sure the thousands of Boston charter school parents (and those wait-listed) will disagree. The families I know are all too aware of the ragingly disparate educational achievement of our city’s students by race. You and I couldn’t disagree more on that point.

But when it comes down to it, our disagreement is irrelevant. My job is to help operate great schools. Your job is to serve the members of your union. Neither of us should get to decide which schools are good enough for other people’s children. Let’s empower those families to vote with their feet and settle the disagreement for us.



My data and assertions may be recycled, but that doesn’t make them any less true. Charters do discriminate and cherry-pick their students.  How else to explain that in 20 years of random enrollment by lottery, allegedly a guarantee of “equal and open” access to charters, more than 95 percent of city students with high and severe needs remain in the Boston Public Schools rather than charters.

Not even the 2010 Achievement Act has motivated charters to recruit and retain students who need additional services. Please tell us how these discriminatory policies support your claim that charters help black and Latino children. And please tell us how suspending 5-year-old children for failing to walk in a straight line improves learning. Or how “encouraging” students to leave prior to MCAS season provides “equal access.” Admit it: In their quest to boost MCAS score results, charters will stop at no tactic, regardless of how it hurts children.

Meet the Author

Jon Clark

Co-Director, Brooke Charter Schools
Meet the Author

Richard Stutman

President, Boston Teachers Union
And enough of your claims to a huge wait list already! The wait list to get a seat of preference in the BPS is twice as long as the much-discredited charter wait list. By the way, our wait list is real: no ghosts, no double dipping.

Finally, we do play different roles. Yours is to prop up a selective, dual system and increase the $450 million currently spent on charters, which practice discrimination. My job is to make sure that our improving public schools, which provide equal access, retain resources to help all students, including those charters refuse to educate.