End the charter school wars

A new path forward can be good for charter and district schools

IT SEEMS TO have become an annual ritual now, like taxes, the flu, or hurricane season. The charter schools war flares up to a point of intensity, sucking up all the oxygen in the education realm and consuming tons of good will and sometimes millions of dollars in the fierce clash of two orthodox cultures, each claiming the mantle of the moral high ground and exclusive possession of the best interests of children. Those caught in the treacherous middle ground between the extremes risk becoming collateral damage in this passion play, a bitter fight, over funding and control, which seldom yields a clear victor.

A decade ago, I wrote, “This perpetual, ideological war over charters reflects poorly on the education sector, and can undermine the public’s support for public education. As a field, we need to do better than dissolving annually into battle while allowing ourselves to be distracted from the substantial challenges of improving education for all our children. ‘Doing better’ will take leadership, especially from policymakers.” Sadly, this comment is every bit as relevant today as it was in 2006.

However, it isn’t that many parties and ambassadors from both sides haven’t labored mightily over the years to build bridges and forge collaborative partnerships. In fact, the work of the Boston Compact has been exemplary in this regard, but it hasn’t been enough to stop the war. So it goes on and on, year after year, taking center stage as if nothing else in the world of education matters. And still, only 4 percent of our children are enrolled in charter schools and even with the most ambitious cap lift, it’s hard to imagine that charter school enrollment will exceed 8 percent in the next decade. In other words, for the foreseeable future, 90-plus percent of public school children will be in district schools, whether we like it or not, and the Commonwealth and our cities and towns have an obligation to see that each and every one of those children receives a world class education.

We are not preparing all of our children for success now. The goal of the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 was to educate all children to high levels, and yet despite these good intentions, lots of hard work, substantial public investment, and nation-leading academic achievement, we still have some of the country’s largest achievement gaps, we have pervasive opportunity gaps, and an iron law correlation between socioeconomic status and education achievement and attainment. We have a long way to go to meet the challenge we set for ourselves in 1993. We need stronger strategies for improving teaching, curriculum and learning, early childhood access and quality, wrap-around services, out of school and summer learning opportunities, affordable colleges and college persistence to name just a few.

Charter schools have been an important part of the Commonwealth’s strategy to date. Massachusetts has produced some of the nation’s top charter schools while the charter initiative, generally, has put competitive pressure on a sometimes sluggish mainstream system. However, charter schools have been neither a silver bullet, as some proponents have promised, nor a catastrophe for public education, as charter opponents have claimed.

The reality is that we need more high quality schools, especially ones that meet the needs of those children who have too frequently been failed by mainstream schools. If charters can succeed where our municipally run schools have failed, shame on us if we don’t embrace that success. Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh are right to push in that direction. On the other hand, we have many shining examples of mainstream schools that defy the odds and deliver a high quality education to students of all backgrounds. We need to scale these successes also and to consider the impact of the growth of charters on the capacity of mainstream schools to succeed.

In the past decade, policymakers have made sincere efforts to bridge the gap between charters and the mainstream. The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 further developed the Horace Mann charter schools, which are in-district charters. At the same time, the concept of Innovation Schools, another form of autonomy for mainstream systems, was introduced. We now have over 50 Innovation Schools in the Commonwealth.

In both Horace Mann and Innovation schools, mainstream public educators are embracing some of the same opportunities available to charters but doing so in municipally controlled systems. This eliminates the competitive tension over funding, while simultaneously deepening professional responsibility for educators. Similarly, greater autonomy is being provided to educators in mainstream schools in places like Lawrence and Springfield, where the state has intervened to turn around chronically underperforming schools. These new hybridized models, mainstream schools with charter autonomies, offer great promise. The work will need careful evaluation and analysis, but it points in the direction of defusing the war.

Defusing this war would be a monumental achievement. Admittedly, it’s easy to proclaim that others should solve a seemingly insoluble dilemma. I don’t have a perfect compromise at the ready, no quick fix or silver bullet. However, here are a few principles and some ideas worth considering:

  • Look to the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 for a successful example of balanced compromise which allowed for a substantial cap lift while including provisions to enable mainstream schools to compete with charters by embracing charter-like autonomies.
  • Consider an omnibus education reform bill which encompasses needed changes and investments in other areas of education like early childhood, higher ed debt relief, or secondary school career pathways. Construct a genuine reform bill rather than isolating charter expansion in a bill by itself.
  • Avoid adding to the state’s already generous district reimbursement policy for charter seats. (The state budget now provides districts a substantial amount of reimbursement for the loss of funding that follows the students to charter schools — an attempt to soften the impact of competition.) However well-intended, this amounts to double paying for students’ education at a time when resources are desperately needed to fully fund the state’s foundation budget. Modest transition monies are justifiable for a short time, but an increase would be blatantly inefficient public policy.
  • Combine a cap lift with a fix (a significant increase) to the foundation budget, thus aiding beleaguered cities. The foundation budget, as the recent Foundation Budget Commission reported, is now out of date and woefully inadequate. The Commission’s recommendations should guide the allocation of additional state funding.
  • Create a self-adjusting capping mechanism that rises or falls based on various performance and poverty factors and does not need regular, distracting revisiting and adjustment by the Legislature.
  • Couple the cap lift with an equitable revision of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposed poverty factor, which threatens to financially undermine school systems in our Gateway Cities.
  • Link a cap lift to school turnaround policies which will need to be revised in accordance with the new federal ESSA statute (Every Student Succeeds Act).
  • Consider financial incentives – an innovation fund – to encourage the planning, development and implementation of Horace Mann and Innovation schools in the Commonwealth.
  • Consider incentives that would reward cities for implementing strong cost-saving measures, such as closing buildings and embracing more efficient insurance coverage or other efficiencies of scale. Such incentives might be financial or possibly include short-term limits on charter expansion in those communities.
  • Introduce a stronger measure of local voice into what should continue to be a state-controlled authorization process. Give local elected officials somewhat more influence (but not control) over the siting of charters in their communities.

A solution will require imagination and fortitude. Each of these suggestions, like so many others, will be lauded by some and scorned by others.

Meet the Author

There’s no simple answer to the struggle between the mainstream schools and the charters. This tension is inevitable because of the way charters must be financed and the consequent loss of students and revenue for municipal school systems. Parents don’t care much about governance; they just want high quality, safe learning environments for their children. Some are pressing policymakers to ensure the well-being of mainstream schools while others want more charter choices. We can only ask that our policymakers take the time to make balanced, evidence-based decisions on these difficult matters while not becoming so preoccupied with resolving this conflict that they neglect to keep Massachusetts schools moving forward – reforming, innovating, improving – as the nation’s leading state education system must continue to do.

In the end, a compromise must emerge that won’t be perfect for any constituency, but will advance the cause of a significantly better education for a much greater number of the Commonwealth’s children. Now’s the time for leadership.

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education.