Charter school lesson plans

New book calls for a reset following divisive fight

It feels like an odd time to be celebrating charter school success in Massachusetts, but that’s just what Cara Candal does in a new book that not only touts the schools, but telegraphs a bold claim about them in its title.

The Fight for the Best Charter Public Schools in the Nation, published by the charter-friendly think tank Pioneer Institute where Candal is a senior fellow, leaves no doubt about the author’s view of the independently operated, but publicly funded, schools that were first authorized in the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act.

But Candal is an honest broker. She doesn’t ignore criticism of charters, such as their long-standing practice in the past of not “backfiling” empty seats during the school year. And she says charters have, as some critics charge, not always made good on the promise that these schools would share with districts best practices and other lessons to improve education more broadly.

Cara Candal.

Criticism aside, Candal says Massachusetts is home to the highest-performing charter school sector in the country, a claim backed by rigorously conducted research studies from MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. The “fight” at the start of her book title relates to what Candal calls on this week’s Codcast the great Massachusetts charter school paradox: The state with the best charters in the country has also been home to some of the most divisive fights over their expansion, culminating in the 2016 ballot question where voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to allow more charter school growth.

Candal doesn’t mince words, saying charter proponents ran a horrible campaign, while opponents were well organized and delivered a thumping to the charter cause. She says opponents were able to exploit confusion about charter school funding, though she faults them for mischaracterizing the complicated issue. Candal says there are a small number of situations in which a surge of charter growth hurts districts, but she argues the broad claim that charters “drain” money from districts doesn’t hold up.

Candal argues that one largely unrecognized obstacle for the 2016 ballot question campaign was a well-intentioned move several years earlier to allow more charter schools. In 2010, the Legislature raised the limit on charter schools but did so with a measure referred to as a “smart cap.”

The law allowed for more charter growth, but restricted it to the state’s lowest performing school districts. What’s more, it limited new charters to those proposed by “proven providers,” operators already running successful charter schools. “I would argue in hindsight it wasn’t particularly smart,” Candal says of the smart-cap legislation.

She says the focus on low-performing districts led to a framing of charters as mainly an escape valve from failing districts, a dynamic that upped tension between charters and struggling urban school systems. Meanwhile, the “proven provider” requirement, she says, killed one of the original premises of charters — that they would be a place for new, outside-the-box education innovation across the state. “We need to break out of this mentality that charter schools are just for a particular type of community,” she says.

Candal says the state should remove the “proven provider” clause, and she argues that charters would develop a broader constituency if innovative proposals landed not just in urban districts with struggling schools, but in suburban areas with better-regarded systems where some families might nonetheless be looking for a different approach to schooling. That seems to sell short, however, the idea that such moves would also increase resistance to charters in areas that had not previously had to contend with their impact on school enrollment and funding.

Candal doesn’t have a clear idea of the way forward for the state’s charter sector that includes a further expansion of the charter limit — other than to say it will have to be done legislatively and have to be bipartisan. She also says it will have to be tied to a bigger education package, as was the case with charters’ arrival as part of the 1993 reform law.