Charters offer high-quality choice

High-poverty areas of Boston lack enough high-performing district schools

MY SUBURBAN FRIENDS are asking for my stand on Question 2. I tell them my “yes” vote is based on one critical measure: There are simply not enough high-performing district schools in Boston to serve even half of the students enrolled in them.

My view is not based on hearsay, but rather hard-earned facts. I’ve lived in Dorchester for 34 years, my children attended the Boston Public Schools, and I’ve worked in the Boston Public Schools and Chelsea Public Schools.

Sixteen years ago, I founded a charter school in Dorchester, and Mayor Menino appointed me to serve on the Boston School Committee from 2011-2015. I co-chaired the School Quality Working Group, which worked on the city’s new student assignment plan. Our close study of district-wide data confirmed what many of us already knew: If you live in Dorchester, Roxbury, or Mattapan, your child has a far lower chance of attending a high-performing school close to your home. Charter schools are concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods, offering families choices that study after study have demonstrated to be of high quality.

I come from a family that had the benefit of making choices. I grew up in an affluent suburb, attended Harvard-Radcliffe, and am as pickled in white privilege as anyone with my life opportunities. Living and working in Dorchester for decades, and working so closely with the Boston Public Schools as a School Committee member while simultaneously directing an expanding K1-12 charter school, has given me a close-up view of what is at stake.

What is at stake is the life opportunities of low-income children of color who live in Boston and other low-performing districts. Question 2 will have no impact on children who live in high-performing suburban districts, because there is plenty of room under existing caps to site new charters. Yet it is likely white suburban voters will determine the outcome of Question 2.

My friends say they are being assailed by opponents of Question 2 who insist that charter schools are for-profit. Massachusetts state law prohibits for-profit charters. All are run by unpaid, non-profit boards made up of local citizens. No one is enriched financially.

“But aren’t charters getting a more motivated parent who applies?” they ask. Unlike suburban districts where your address determines your student assignment, in Boston, every parent has to apply for every school – be it district or charter. Enrollment to all charters in the state is by lottery, with sibling preference.

Enrollment at Boston Public Schools is by a formula ranking schools by quality, also with sibling preference, except in the case of nine selective admissions high schools – yes, nine, not just the three exam schools. In some cases, these schools require student essays, middle school transcripts and personal recommendations. Furthermore, with acknowledgement of the enrollment burden placed on Boston families, charters are working actively to create one common application so parents can apply to multiple charters at the same time.

“You don’t serve special needs students, right?” No, actually, we do. In our school, 26 percent of students have identified special needs. We educate in an inclusive model in which students with disabilities are educated alongside their non-disabled peers. A recent MIT study found that special needs students in Boston charters outperformed their counterparts. In the BPS, however, more than 40 percent of the 11,000 special needs students on individualized education programs are educated in substantially separate classrooms, a figure that climbs to more than 75 percent during their middle and high school years. This leaves the BPS with the distinction of having the highest percentage of children educated in substantially separate settings in the state and among the highest percentages in the country.

“There will be too many new charters, too quickly,” is another argument against Question 2. In fact, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has taken a careful, deliberate approach to expansion since first granting charters following the Education Reform Act of 1993 — an average of four charters granted per year statewide. Question 2 does nothing to change that deliberate approach, or weaken the high bar to obtaining and keeping a charter. Equally important, the state education department has shown the will to close charters when they are failing, a powerful mechanism for accountability.

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Savvy parents sign up their children at birth to get into the METCO program, which allows Boston and Springfield students to attend suburban district schools. Even elected officials now opposed to Question 2 have exercised this option. A yes vote on Question 2 is an outward sign that all families deserve choices on where their children go to school, especially when faced with a failing school likely to fail their child’s chance for a quality education.

Meg Campbell served on the Boston School Committee from 2011-2015, founded Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, and has worked in Boston and Chelsea public schools.