Charter schools work

It’s time to remove the cap in high-need communities

Charter schools are one of the great success stories of Massachusetts education reform, but thanks to a state law limiting enrollment, their growth is about to hit the wall.

Last month, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved four new Commonwealth charters, including one more in Boston.  Commonwealth charter schools are independently managed public schools, which are free from local district control and collective bargaining agreements.  As a result of the board’s action, there will soon be over 70 Commonwealth charter schools operating in Massachusetts.  Although there is still room for another handful of these schools under the statewide cap, restrictions applying to charter school enrollment at the municipal level will effectively prevent any further expansion of Commonwealth charters in high-need cities like Boston, Lawrence, and Holyoke.

As we approach these statutory limits to charter school growth, a bill has been submitted to the Legislature that would eliminate the charter cap in the state’s lowest performing school districts, including Boston. Although this targeted proposal is supported by a broad-based coalition of education reform advocates and business groups, it faces tough opposition. 

Since the first charter schools opened in 1995, their opponents have consistently argued that charter schools drain resources from local school districts, while failing to serve the highest need students.  After almost 18 years of experience, however, we can now say with confidence that these claims are simply false.  Let’s look at Boston, which is home to more charter school students than any other city or town in the state.

The year before the first charter school opened, Boston Public Schools (BPS) enrolled just under 60,000 students.  Since then, overall public school enrollment, district and charter combined, has stayed pretty flat , but now BPS enrolls only about 55,000 students, while over 6,300 students attend charter schools.  Even as BPS enrollment has slipped, its budget has doubled from about $405 million in FY 1995 to over $815 million last year.  Taking both enrollment changes and inflation into account, the district’s real per-pupil spending grew by more than 20 percent during this period (from $6,747 per pupil to $8,246 per pupil in 1995 dollars).  Although inflation-adjusted state education aid to Boston grew significantly in the late 1990s, it has mostly trailed off since then.  Nevertheless, BPS now receives slightly more in real state aid per pupil than it did before charters burst onto the scene.

From a demographic perspective, charter school students do not perfectly mirror the BPS averages, but they are roughly similar.  Based on data recently released by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 76 percent of BPS students are black or Hispanic, compared to about 84 percent of charter school students.  Almost 72 percent of BPS students come from low-income families, virtually the same proportion as in the charter sector. 

About 19 percent of BPS students are classified as having special needs, while 14 17percent of charter school students have disabilities. There is no doubt that charter schools have fewer students with severe or multiple disabilities, since charters generally lack the district’s scale and capacity for a full-range of highly specialized services – and are not eligible for the extra funding these students require.  Equally important, for students with milder learning or behavioral challenges, the standard academic programs that many charter schools offer have helped to reduce the need for special services.

The biggest demographic difference between BPS and charter schools involves students whose first language is not English.  About 45 percent of BPS students come from homes where a language other than English is spoken, compared to 21 percent in Boston charter schools.  Part of this difference is a reflection of where charter schools happen to be located and the racial and ethnic make-up of the surrounding neighborhoods, which supply most of their students.  For example, less than 30 percent of Boston charter school students are Hispanic, compared to almost 40 percent in BPS.  Nevertheless, over the past two years, recruitment efforts have improved significantly, resulting in a 2.7 3.4percentage point increase in English language learners in charter schools this year alone.  Among those charter schools that are adding new campuses, the percentage of incoming students whose first language is not English has shot up from just under 30 percent two years ago to 55 percent this year.

Not only are charter schools serving an increasingly broad cross-section of high-need students, but they are continuing to produce outstanding academic results.  According to a research paper released in February by Stanford University, “charter students in Boston gain an additional 12 months in reading and 13 months in math per school year” compared to their counterparts in the study’s control group.  In other words, Boston charter school students are learning at twice the rate of their district-school peers.  “The average growth rate of Boston charter students in math and reading is the largest [we have] seen in any city or state,” the authors report.

Meet the Author
Removing the statutory limits on charter school growth in those cities and towns that have so few high-quality school options is an essential part of any serious attempt to keep Massachusetts at the forefront of education reform and to ensure real opportunity for our highest need students. 

The facts of the case are no longer in doubt.  The time for action is now.

James A. Peyser is a former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, who is currently managing partner with NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit grant-making firm that supports the development of early stage education reform organizations.