Don’t gamble with Massachusetts students’ future

Charter school expansion is a risky bet

ON NOVEMBER 8, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to lift the cap on charter schools, eliminating a major constraint on charter school formation and expansion in the Commonwealth. Proponents of lifting the cap contend that charters schools provide real educational choice to families and have the potential to improve student outcomes. My colleague Thomas Kane made these arguments in a recent essay for CommonWealth. But another look at the evidence suggests that by passing the charter cap override, voters will be gambling with the future of Massachusetts students – academically, personally, and financially.

My reasoning stems from a close reading of the evidence on charter schools generally, and charter schools in Boston in particular. Many studies in many states have shown that charter schools do little, on average, to improve student test scores. For urban charter schools, however, the evidence suggests a more promising story. Recent studies using lottery data – that is, comparing applicants who gained a seat in a charter school versus those who were turned away – show positive impacts on student test scores.

With all this positive evidence, why not support lifting the charter cap? Because test scores and enrollment in college are not the end of the road for most students, and because emerging evidence suggests that these positive effects may fade as students begin their adult lives.

This is the case in Boston, where researchers’ careful tracking of six charter high schools over the last decade has shown that those charters have a large and positive impacts on MCAS scores as compared to the city’s conventional public high schools. Charter attendees post higher SAT scores, and more charter students take an AP exam. Charter impacts on college attendance rates are large, with 59 percent of charter attendees enrolling in a four-year college as compared to 41 percent of non-charter attendees.

But while charter-enrolled Boston students were more likely to take AP exams, researchers found that they were generally not more likely to score at the level rewarded with college credit by most Boston-area universities. And although charter students are more likely to enroll in 4-year than 2-year colleges, their overall rate of persistence past the third semester is indistinguishable from non-charter students.

Researchers have not yet examined later-life outcomes from Boston charters. Many would agree that these outcomes – college graduation, employment, wages, marriage and homeownership – matter more than test scores and the SAT, or gaining entry to college. But a recent study of “no excuse” charter schools in Texas casts doubt on the idea that stronger initial test scores will translate into positive later-life outcomes. In that study, the authors found the no-excuse charters increased students’ state test scores, high school graduation rates, college enrollment and persistence – even more positive results than found in Boston. But in their mid-20s, no-excuses charter attendees were not more likely to be employed or to earn more than non-charter students, and students in regular charters actually earned significantly less than otherwise would be expected.

Given these results, and given that there have yet to be long-term studies on impacts on later-life outcomes for our state’s urban charter schools, caution is warranted.

Caution is particularly important in Massachusetts, a state with historically strong public schools and strong active reform efforts. Public schools, given the right incentives and resources, can be as effective at innovating to raise test scores as charters, as two recent studies of Massachusetts’ turnaround schools show.

Similarly, Somerville recently began a dual strategy of using student assessments to inform instruction and implementing interventions aimed at struggling students. The initiatives resulted in district student growth scores in the top 12 percentile statewide, and a high school that ranks in the 97th percentile. An increase of 30 percent in district spending permitted these improvement efforts.

But Question 2 would create major financial burdens for Somerville and other districts for many years to come. For each new charter school that opens, a neighborhood school must close, a process that has proven excruciating in other parts of the  . Many cities will experience annual deficits (see this simulation) and no predictability in planning, which in turn prevents long-term improvement efforts.

Meet the Author

Considering these uncertain benefits and certain risks, I urge voters to vote no on Question 2.

Heather C. Hill is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.