Charter school debate is not over
More are needed to deliver on state’s educational promise
TWO YEARS AFTER an ill-conceived ballot campaign in which Massachusetts voters rejected raising the cap on charter public schools, the political impulse is to assume this debate is settled. But as long as the conditions charters have so successfully addressed continue to persist in traditional public schools, so will the debate.
To provide families with more public education options, the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act enabled the establishment of 25 charter schools. The charter cap has since been raised several times. The latest attempt to raise the cap took place in 2016, when the Legislature came up short in its effort to craft compromise legislation and then the electorate voted down a cap increase later that fall.
Although Massachusetts schools have become the nation’s best in the wake of reform, our class-based achievement gaps show that not everyone has shared equally in the benefits. Accordingly, the circumstances that led to the creation of charter schools endure.
For a time, the progressive formula we helped craft in 1993 reduced education funding disparities. But now, as the Boston Globe has reported, disparities have reemerged and the situation has worsened. Last year, for example, Weston spent over $24,000 per student, while Brockton spent less than $15,000.
Nothing has proven more effective at closing that gap than our charter schools, which are the best-performing in the country. A Stanford University study found that Boston charters are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other public schools in America. Statewide, charter schools dramatically outperform their district counterparts.
In recent years, Massachusetts charter schools have also been educating a growing percentage of English language learners and special needs students. Charters had long lacked the information needed to reach out to them, but a 2010 law mandated that district schools provide charters with the necessary contact information and required charter schools to submit plans for recruiting these students.
Today charter schools are on a path, within a few years, to enroll virtually the same percentage of English language learners and special needs students as the districts from which their students come. A number of studies also show that these populations perform better in charters than in traditional public schools.
The limited number of available charters has required that great care be taken to choose the best among numerous charter applications. Demand is high, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of students on charter school waitlists, and we believe modest expansion would not compromise quality.
One way to help ensure that charter school quality remains outstanding would be to eliminate the Commonwealth’s so-called proven provider requirement. Currently, the percentage of possible charter seats doubles in school districts that rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide. But any seats above the original cap can be offered only by operators with a track record of success in Massachusetts. This provision stifles innovation among the very schools that were designed to inject innovative ideas into public education.Charter schools have succeeded without sabotaging the school districts from which their students come. Unlike the practice in other states, districts receive reimbursements equal to more than two years of funding over a six-year period for every student they lose to a charter school.
The Massachusetts Education Reform Act was fundamentally progressive legislation, providing far more state aid to poor school districts than to affluent ones. We have waited decades for all school districts to deliver on the promise of affording all students a first-rate education. Until they do, and as long as an option that does deliver on that promise exists, the charter school debate will rightly continue in Massachusetts.