More charter schools are not the answer

Raising the charter cap would hurt public education in Massachusetts

IT SEEMS THAT the debate over charter schools is once again heating up in Massachusetts. Proposed legislation by Gov. Charlie Baker, a lawsuit on behalf of students denied charter seats, and an upcoming ballot question all seek to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Secretary of Education Jim Peyser speak to a group of superintendents in Western Mass. He outlined his philosophy regarding the steps he believes are necessary to strengthen public education in Massachusetts, including an enhanced role for charter schools.

I came away from that meeting impressed with the secretary as an individual. He is personable, articulate and, most importantly, appears to be a man of integrity. He is firm in his beliefs and does not shy away from or change his message even when speaking to a group of educators, many of whom he knows do not agree with his educational philosophy. There were portions of his philosophy, such as a focus on the school as the primary unit to concentrate educational reform efforts, with which I actually agree. However, his support and emphasis on the idea of “choice” and charter schools as a primary vehicle for positive change in public schools is, in my estimation, flawed.

The secretary and charter school advocates claim that the creation of more charter schools will help close the achievement gap. However, a look at student achievement data demonstrates that this assertion is not accurate. When taken in the aggregate, charter schools do not show appreciably better student performance than traditional public schools.

Additionally, by the very nature of the fact that parents have to take action to enroll their children in charter schools, those parents demonstrate an additional level of participation in their children’s education. Research has consistently demonstrated that parental involvement has a dramatic impact on student achievement. Consequently, an increase in the number of charter schools will mean a further decrease in those types of students and families in traditional public schools and a reduction in the number of high achieving, positive role model students. This can only serve to weaken the public school system in the affected community.

Secretary Peyser conceded that charter schools are often too small and lack the resources to effectively service students with special needs. Therefore, those students must stay in the district schools. Consequently, as currently organized, we are setting up a tiered educational system in our Commonwealth, where those students whose parents are actively involved in their education can avail themselves of this choice, leaving the rest, including students with substantial special needs, in the district public schools.

Policymakers who are charter school advocates espouse the idea that competition and a partnership between traditional public schools and charter schools will strengthen both entities. However, once again that idea is flawed. Educators know that healthy collaboration leads to greater improvement for teachers and schools. However, the only thing worse for a public school system than a charter school moving into the community is for more than one to move into the surrounding area. The fiscal impact on a school system can be dramatic.

Take a relatively small district such as Ludlow, with a student population of about 2,800. The Ludlow Public Schools are lucky in that we do not have a charter school in our town and lose few students (19) to charter schools in surrounding communities. However, even that small number of students has a big financial impact on our fiscal resources. In FY ’16, the state has assessed Ludlow $434,878 to pay local charter schools. We are reimbursed $122,467 according to the state formula, leaving a total cost to the town of $312,411 for charter school students. This is a large amount for a district such as ours and those funds could have a dramatic impact on improving educational services for all students rather than funneling that money into quasi-private schools.

The public schools in a community are answerable to a school committee of elected representative who are directly accountable to residents. Charters are not accountable to the community in which they reside and yet that community must hand over funds to support those schools. Where is the equity in that system?

The majority of charter schools are non-union entities and this is lauded by supporters as one of the benefits. However, when they are engaged in the process of school change, unions are not an impediment to educational reform. The greatest impediment to true educational reform is the plethora of ill-advised educational policies currently being created. Unions can and should be included in the change process rather than being seen as an obstacle. When this is done in a district the results can be powerful.

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After all, unions are made up of teachers. These are the professionals who have the knowledge training and drive to change our schools. If we engage them in the process of change, afford them the flexibility to try new approaches, and give them the resources to accomplish this task, then we will not need to funnel money into a quasi-private schools to the detriment the public schools in our communities.

Some would argue the charter school movement believes district public schools aren’t worth saving and that traditional district systems must be torn down and rebuilt in this new charter model. Our public schools may not be perfect and change is most definitely needed. However, public schools are the bedrock upon which our democratic society rests and thus I believe they are worth the effort to save.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.