Counterpoints

Yes, charter schools have been controversial, but then again, so has just about everything we’ve done to improve public education. Curriculum frameworks, graduation requirements, teacher testing, you name it, and it’s been controversial. If it disrupts the status quo, someone’s against it.

So I am heartened to read in Shelley Berman and Tom Scott’s article an explicit acknowledgment – and acceptance – that charter schools are here to stay. And the questions they ask are reasonable ones: How many should we have? How can we improve the process by which they are approved and funded? And most importantly, what can we learn from them?

But first, let’s put this in perspective. There are currently about 17,700 students attending charter schools in Massachusetts, less than 2 percent of the state’s total student enrollment. Charter tuition payments this year are also less than 2 percent of total K-12 expenditures.

And if you’re under the impression that the “heavily biased” state Board of Education (as Berman and Scott characterize it) is handing out charters willy nilly, the facts say otherwise. Charter schools were first authorized in 1994, in the same education reform law that brought billions of dollars of new state aid to local districts. Since that time, the Board of Education has granted less than half of the 120 charters allowed by law. This past year, eight applications for new charters were submitted, and only two were granted.

It is true that a few charter schools have been closed, due to mismanagement, poor academic performance, or simply low enrollment. Nobody likes to see that happen. It is painful and disruptive for the students and the staff. But in a larger sense, that is one of the great strengths of our charter school program. The schools must succeed, or they go out of business. To say that charter schools are not accountable is to miss the point entirely. They are accountable for results, in a manner that goes far beyond what we expect of most of our public schools.

At their best, charter schools are jewels in our public education system, far outperforming other schools in their areas. If you want to criticize charter schools, that is your right, but do not do so until you have visited Neighborhood House Charter School, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, Media and Technology Charter High School, or the Academy of the Pacific Rim. In these and other charter schools, you will see that public education can work, even in urban areas with high percentages of disadvantaged students. For example, Mass Insight Education recently reported that Roxbury Prep’s “minority, largely low-income population exceeded state MCAS averages in every grade and in every subject” and that “100 percent of students passed both the seventh grade ELA and eighth grade math exams, with 89 percent and 73 percent, respectively, in the Advanced and Proficient categories.”

The ways in which charter schools succeed are almost as numerous as the schools themselves. Some use model curricula that have proven successful in other states, such as the Knowledge is Power Program at the Kipp Academy Lynn Charter School or the Core Knowledge Program at the Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter Public School. Others, such as the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School or the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School, offer specialized programs. Some serve special populations, such as the program for at-risk high school students at the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School. Some experiment with alternative schedules and longer school days and years. If this is not replicable innovation, I don’t know what is.

In most successful charter schools, we see a high level of parental involvement. Parents are able to meet and interact with school leaders, and school leaders are able to quickly respond to parental concerns. In this regard, Massachusetts charter schools mirror a national trend toward site-based school management, with greater decision-making authority granted to those closest to student learning.

Another common characteristic of successful charter schools is close cooperation between the school’s leadership and faculty. Teachers are treated as professionals, rather than being forced to comply with the rigid work rules of many union contracts. If that is one of the advantages that charter schools have, it is one that we should try to replicate in every school district.

Berman and Scott express concern with the approval and recruitment process for charter schools. The approval process is a lengthy one, with opportunity for both local officials and the public at large to weigh in. But the law distinguishes between local input and local veto. Commonwealth charter schools were established to be independent of the local districts, so there is no local veto.

The rules governing student recruitment and enrollment are also often misunderstood. Charter schools are not only permitted to enroll students from anywhere in Massachusetts, but are required to do so if space is available. Preference must be given to the town or towns comprising the charter school’s “region,” but any remaining seats can and must go to any student wishing to enroll. Only the town in which the school is located is obligated to provide transportation, on the same basis as it is provided to other local students. In most cases, students enrolling from other towns must arrange transportation themselves.

We do not require, nor do we expect, the demographic make-up of charter schools to exactly reflect the make-up of their host districts. Charter schools are schools of choice, and their enrollment reflects those families who choose them. And yet, to their credit, most charter schools have chosen to locate in urban areas, where the need for quality educational programs is greatest.

Of course, the real argument with charter schools has to do with money. The original funding formula reflected a long-standing belief that educational dollars don’t “belong” to the local school district, but should go to where the students are being educated. For decades, local communities have made tuition payments to regional schools, vocational schools, agricultural schools, out-of-district schools, and even some private schools for students with special needs. Charter schools are no different.

Still, the original tuition formula for charters was a bit of a one-size-fits-all affair. Last summer, the governor and the Legislature changed the formula, based in large part on recommendations from Worcester Superintendent James Caradonio and his staff. The new formula recognizes that different students have different costs, so now a charter school’s tuition varies based on the demographics of the students it enrolls. The new formula also recognized that facilities costs are relatively fixed with respect to enrollment, so the state now reimburses districts, for the first time, for that piece of charter tuition. This is on top of the existing program of transitional reimbursements for three years following any increase in charter tuition payments.

The authors claim that per pupil spending in charter schools is higher than the state average. Our data do not support that assertion, but the comparison is misleading anyway, because charter schools are concentrated in urban districts, where spending exceeds the state average. An apples-to-apples comparison gives an unambiguous result: Charter tuitions are now about 8 percent below the average spending in districts where the charters are located. This is a direct result of the formula change that calculates tuition based on the actual student rather than the district average.

Berman and Scott contend that local districts are shortchanged by the charter formula, but the data do not support this conclusion either. Of the $8,463 average tuition paid by districts (net of facilities reimbursements), the state this year is reimbursing districts $1,900 under the transitional reimbursement program. The rest of tuition is funded out of a combination of the district’s Chapter 70 state aid (averaging $3,152 per pupil) and local revenues (averaging $3,411 per pupil). By comparison, local funding for non-charter students in these districts is almost half again higher, at $4,918.

Last year’s formula reforms were based on solid analysis, and they were enacted with the support of many superintendents. I think it’s premature to start tinkering again. Let’s give the formula some time to work.

Yes, charter schools are a nontraditional approach to public education. There is much we can learn from them, and much we can do to make them even better. Should we have independent evaluations to learn what works and what doesn’t? Absolutely, as we should have for all of our education programs. But the opportunities for improvement should not be used as an excuse for a moratorium. We should never close the door on new and different ideas.

David Driscoll is commissioner of education for the Commonwealth.

 

Superintendents’ plan would harm charters, not improve program

By Marc Kenen
Summer 2005

We applaud the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents for concluding that “a workable charter school experiment [can] succeed alongside the existing public school system.” A decade after the first charter public school opened in Massachusetts, we are long past the “experiment” stage, and we hope their stance signals that district public schools are moving away from treating charters as adversaries and toward the cooperative relationship we have always favored.

In the past, districts have distributed anti-charter school petitions in class and used PTO meetings to spread misinformation about the impact charters would have on district programs. It is our hope that we can move past this counterproductive behavior and focus our energies on providing students with high-quality educational opportunities. Unfortunately, what the superintendents propose would do little to improve the Massachusetts charter school program, and potentially do much to harm it.

Contrary to the superintendents’ assertions, charter public schools do not subtract from public education; they add to it. Our schools provide educational choice for poor and working class parents and educational opportunity for their children. Choice is a powerful tool for parents seeking equal access to educational opportunity for their children. Choice also acts as a powerful catalyst for change in district schools.

Since the first charter public school opened in 1995, demand has remained strong. More than 21,000 children attend the 61 charter public schools, while 15,000 more sit on wait lists. In many of the state’s lowest performing districts, there are more children on wait lists than in our classrooms. In Boston, more than 5,000 students are enrolled, while 7,000 wait for openings; in Lawrence, 839 attend, 974 wait; in Springfield, 1,684 attend, 3,169 wait.

Despite the superintendents’ claim that they have not met “high expectations,” charter public schools have built an impressive record of academic success. State Department of Education 2004 MCAS data show that nearly two-thirds of charter public schools placed a higher percentage of students in proficient and advanced categories compared to their sending districts; and a higher percentage of charter public students scored proficient or advanced on nine of the 10 MCAS tests compared to district averages.

The performance gap is particularly apparent in urban districts that serve a high percentage of disadvantaged children. A Boston Globe study published in January found that charter public schools “in the state’s largest and most troubled school systems score higher than students in [district] public schools on the vast majority of standardized math and English tests.” In Boston, an average of 20 percent more students who took the English MCAS and 9 percent who took the math scored proficient or advanced compared to district averages. Excluding the city’s prestigious exam schools, which have highly selective admissions, all five charter high schools and four of the six charter middle schools ranked in the top 10 citywide.

In Springfield, 27 percent more students who took the English MCAS and 14 percent more who took the math scored proficient or advanced compared to city averages; in Lawrence, 25 percent more scored proficient or advanced in English and 27 percent more in math. Community Day Charter Public School in Lawrence ranked first in the district on every test.

The tired old argument (which the superintendents trot out once again) that charter public schools “skim” the best and brightest students is simply not true. Statewide, charters enroll twice as many poor and minority students as district schools and an equivalent percentage of special needs students, according to state figures. In reality, parents are the determining factor in our enrollment. When applications outnumber available spots, admission is determined by lottery.

Still, the superintendents would prefer to hamstring charter schools with additional regulation and red tape and cut off our financial lifeline by changing the funding formula – again. As to their specific proposals:

ACCOUNTABILITY: Claims that charter public schools are unaccountable are unfounded and untrue. We may not be accountable to local schools boards and superintendents, but that’s the point. Charters were designed to be independent public schools that bypass local bureaucratic controls and report directly to the state. We are audited every year by the state auditor, inspected annually by the Department of Education, and must be renewed every five years by the state Board of Education. In a 2003 study of 23 states, Massachusetts earned the highest rating in the country for its charter approval, oversight, and accountability procedures. During the last decade, four Massachusetts charter public schools did not live up to the terms of their charter and were closed. That’s the accountability that matters. Meanwhile, failing district schools continue to operate.

Charter schools do not ‘skim’ the best and brightest.

The superintendents imply that our expenditures cannot be tracked because different charter schools use various financial reporting forms. This is not true. Every charter school is required to file an end of the year report with the Department of Education. In addition, we are required by law to undergo an independent audit. Charter schools are the most closely examined and evaluated public schools in the state. We follow the public bidding process when the law requires it and must employ good business practices in all purchases and contracts.

Since the beginning of the charter school movement, our schools have been denied school building assistance funds. This was at the insistence of superintendents and school committees. To deal with this lack of public facilities funding, charter schools have developed innovative ways of funding school facilities through public/private partnerships that use federal loan guarantees to access private financing. This means that charter schools have saved the state millions of dollars on facilities costs.

APPLICATION AND APPROVAL: The superintendents would also like to put further constraints on the charter school application and approval process. We agree with some of their concerns, and we support the changes the Department of Education has already made in response to them. We encourage the superintendents to examine these changes before embarking on uninformed efforts to modify them further.

The process guarantees local input, not local control. The state – not the district – is the judge of whether there is a need for a charter school and whether the particular application is viable. We strongly disagree that only “vague” evidence of local support needs to be shown before charters are awarded. Charters are proposed by parents and community leaders and are operated by local boards made up of people who live in the community.

Charter schools are also fulfilling our mission to serve as laboratories of innovation. We share our best practices on a school-to-school and teacher-to-teacher level with other charter schools and with district public schools. As part of these efforts we host an annual best practice showcase inviting teachers and administrators from all public schools. The state Department of Education also awards annual best practice dissemination grants. One charter public school – Neighborhood House in Boston – founded The Project for School Innovation, a teacher-to-teacher network that brings educators together from charter public schools and district public schools to share successes, address challenges, and drive school change. Other charter schools are providing similar opportunities for collaboration between charter and district public schools.

FUNDING: Much of the debate over charter public schools has focused on money. The fact is there is no loss of public school funding because charter schools are public schools. They are funded by reallocating a portion of total education spending between districts and charters based on where parents choose to enroll their children. Charters are by no means protected from local aid cuts, because our funding is directly linked to district spending. It rises when local aid increases and falls when it’s cut.

The superintendents claim charter public schools cost Massachusetts taxpayers more than $170 million during the last fiscal year. In reality, the only new expenditures go to school districts, reimbursing them for the students they lose to charter public schools – 100 percent the first year, 60 percent the second, 40 percent the third, giving them three years to adjust.

Last September, at the urging of the superintendents, the Legislature and governor approved a new formula ensuring that the tuition money charters receive from districts reflects the demographics and grade levels of students enrolled in them. The new formula reduced tuition payments by about 8 percent, but also for the first time provided funding for a portion of capital expenses.

Now the superintendents say that the formula they designed is inequitable. Instead, they want charter funding to be modeled on the school choice program. But school choice allows for transfer between existing schools, with existing facilities; it does not finance new schools. Their proposal would cut charter funding by close to 50 percent, leaving the remainder of per-pupil costs to the state budget process – where it would be vulnerable to the political clout of the teachers unions and other powerful opponents.

As educators, none of us would allow our students to engage in the attacks and squabbling that have marked the decade-long relationship between district and charter public schools. We agree that we can co-exist; that has been our intention from the beginning. But we won’t sacrifice the future viability of our schools to achieve it. A funding proposal that would cripple charters is clearly unacceptable, as are regulatory requirements intended only to undermine our effectiveness – and our existence.

Marc Kenen is executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

 

Charter system needs scrutiny, reform before further expansion

By Catherine Boudreau
Summer 2005

The Massachusetts charter school program is long overdue for reform, as Sheldon Berman and Thomas Scott lay out cogently. Massachusetts public school teachers have witnessed the downside of the charter school system firsthand.

When a charter school opens in a community, often over the objection of a majority of local residents and elected officials, the financial impact is felt within a few short years. Local school districts often must reduce art, music, physical education, foreign language courses, counseling services, and innovative electives and programs. For students in the district schools, the benefits of having a charter school nearby are illusory, while the costs are very real.

Fortunately, there is a better way.

We support a moratorium on new charter schools until the state has addressed the funding and governance concerns and commissioned an independent evaluation of the academic benefits of charter schools. An honest study will compare performance of similar populations, since even charter school boosters at the state Department of Education acknowledge that these schools enroll far fewer English language learners and special education students than their sending districts.

Additionally, the study should closely examine whether charter school gains, where they exist, are being replicated in other schools. So far, we’ve seen little evidence of this occurring, though it was a key selling point when the charter school law was approved.

While that study is taking place, innovation within existing public school districts can and should continue to flourish.

Many districts in Massachusetts already have choice programs in place, meaning parents may send their children to any public school in the district – and sometimes across district lines – as long as there is room in the receiving school.

Many also have alternative schools within the public school system, such as magnet schools and Horace Mann charter schools, which operate under a different set of rules with union and school committee approval.

Alternatives like these can be implemented by local school committees now, without hurting educational opportunities for any child. Here are just a few examples of alternatives that already exist:

The Unidos program in the East Somerville Community School is a two-way bilingual program in which English- and Spanish-speaking students are taught in both languages. Students in this program not only become fluent in both languages, but they also consistently do well on the MCAS tests.

Brookline has several alternative programs within its high school that students may choose. One is School Within a School, a small program in which students actively participate in decision-making through weekly Town Meetings.

Boston Arts Academy, which emphasizes the visual and performing arts, is one of several pilot schools – which are similar to Horace Mann charter schools – in the city. The talented students in this program come from 15 different neighborhoods and reflect the city’s diversity.

One of the most successful schools in Worcester is the University Park Campus School, which has a strong relationship with Clark University. Newsweek recently named it one of the top 100 schools in the country. Most of the students enrolled there speak English as a second language, and 73 percent are low-income. Nonetheless, 100 percent of its graduates go to college, and 63 percent of the 10th graders scored at the “advanced” level on the MCAS mathematics test last year, compared with 29 percent statewide.

Worcester provides a good illustration of how the Commonwealth charter school funding system can actually hurt innovation within the regular public schools. Funding constraints caused in part by the cost of sending students to nearby charter schools forced the district to suspend the extended day programs at University Park and other district schools three years ago. The school day there now ends at 2:23 p.m. instead of 4 p.m.

One of the selling points for many charter schools is that they offer a longer school day, so it is ironic that the existence of charter schools impairs the ability of the district schools to do the same.

Some would argue that charter schools are worth their high cost because they provide students with a superior education. But is that true? While some charter schools do indeed do well, performance on the whole has been disappointing, according to the biggest and most reliable studies conducted to date.

One of the most notable of these was commissioned by the US Department of Education, which strongly supports charter schools. It was released to the public in June 2004 only after The New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding to see the results.

Conducted by California research firm SRI International, the report is based on case studies in five states that have made significant investments in charter schools: Massachusetts, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, and North Carolina.

The researchers found that students attending charter schools were less likely to meet state performance standards compared to students in the traditional public schools, even when the results were adjusted for race and income.

Performance notwithstanding, charter school supporters argue that parents should be able to choose a charter school if that is what they want for their children. Choice is important, but not without limits. A motorist may not choose to drive faster than the speed limit because that endangers others. Similarly, there is no reason parents should be entitled to send their children to a charter school if doing so endangers the resources and quality of education provided to other children.

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Communities also deserve to have choices. The voters and taxpayers in a community ought to have the final say over whether a charter school – which they ultimately have to fund – is allowed to operate in their community.

If these funding and governance issues are resolved, charter schools could be a worthy experiment. As long as those issues remain, however, the development of new charter schools should be put on hold. The money saved should be funneled into proven strategies for improving achievement, such as reducing class sizes and providing all public school children with a rich, varied, and rigorous curriculum.

Catherine Boudreau is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.