Multiple Choice

It is a blustery autumn afternoon and the Framingham Community Charter School is in lockdown mode. Just moments before, the school’s 96 sixth-graders were on the playground after lunch when school principal Michael Delman got word over his walkie-talkie that, as he puts it, “somebody was shot in the neighborhood and the shooter was missing.” So Delman and Rob Kaufman, the school’s executive director, usher students across Clinton Street and into the main building, which is rented from the Archdiocese of Boston and has served at various times as a Catholic school and as offices for Wonder Bread. Delman and Kaufman lock the entrances and visit classrooms to explain the situation to students. They soon learn the weapon is a BB gun, but as Kaufman points out, you don’t want kids outside when somebody’s firing a gun, even if he’s shooting BBs, not bullets.

Rob Kaufman, left, and Michael Delman started
from scratch to open the Framingham
Community Charter School.

For Kaufman, the scene is eerily familiar. Before teaming up with Delman to open the charter school, he headed the American Red Cross’s humanitarian aid effort in the Balkans during the Kosovo crisis. And while roaming gunmen are rare threats in Massachusetts, in a variety of other ways charter schools like this one are under fire. That’s made Kaufman’s war-zone experience perfect preparation for an educational experiment whose outcome is far from certain.

The growth and maturation of charter schools has, in combination with a tight state budget, transformed these start-from-scratch alternatives to district schools from curiosities to formidable competitors for students and dollars. Now the mainstream schools they are competing with, and their political allies, are starting to push back. There was a move in the Legislature to halt charter-school growth in its tracks last year, and such a push is likely to be renewed now that funds to cushion districts from the financial blow of losing students to charters have been eliminated.

Not that the reception charter schools received from school districts has ever been warm. The intent of the 10-year-old legislation that opened the door to charter schools in Massachusetts–the fourth state in the nation to do so–was, among other notions, to attack malaise in public education by fostering schools that could be laboratories of innovation. To that end, charter schools are required, as a condition of their charter, to disseminate novel ideas and practices to district schools–or try to. It hasn’t always been easy.

“Frankly, charter schools often encounter tremendous resistance from district schools,” says Kristin McIntosh, acting associate commissioner for charter schools at the state Department of Education. In judging whether charter schools have fulfilled this obligation, McIntosh says, “We look for the efforts the school has made in disseminating.”

Some district administrators say they see nothing to admire in, let alone learn from, these new kids on the educational block. “These people have over-promised and under-delivered,” says James Caradonio, superintendent of the Worcester public schools. Charter schools, he says, “were set up to show us the way. But they duplicate everything we are doing and then they say, ‘Look at what we’re doing.'”

Not everyone in the educational establishment is as hostile to the charter-school challenge as Caradonio. But as the movement matures from novelty to institutional reality, the questions posed to this motley collection of educational start-ups are getting sharper. Such as: Just how successful do charter schools have to be, in innovation and performance, to justify their cost, both to the state and to the school districts they take students from? But then, the challenge posed by charter schools is getting sharper as well: Given their popularity among parents eager for an alternative to district schools, are charter schools going to be forever kept on the educational fringe, constrained from growth by state-imposed caps and institutional disadvantages, or allowed to become true options available to all the students and parents who want them?

Despite an invigorated opposition, it would seem that charters are here to stay. But a nagging question looms over this experiment in educational innovation and choice: Is competition good–but only if there isn’t too much of it?

A mixed report card

Part of the nature of charter schools is that it is hard to generalize about them. These new institutions offer parents an alternative to traditional public schooling, but what that looks like depends on each individual school’s founders, who could be parents, teachers, or community leaders. It was–and still is–an entrepreneurial model: Come up with a vision, write a plan, and make it work.

Charter schools come in two types: Horace Mann charters, which operate as part of a school district, and Commonwealth charters (the vast majority), which are entirely independent of the districts in which they’re located. Because charter schools are publicly funded, they are open to all, using a lottery to determine admission. All charters have more leeway in managing their own operations than do traditional schools, including freedom from the teacher-union contracts that constrain the management of district schools and relief from various state requirements. In exchange, they are held accountable for student performance and school management in what is, on paper at least, a particularly draconian fashion: Fail and you’re shut down.

Rep. Deborah Blumer: It’s time to put the brakes on charters.

That’s what happened to the Lynn Community Charter School last year. The state Board of Education refused to renew the school’s charter, citing academic and administrative problems. But the Lynn charter school is not the only one that has been less than a resounding success. Caradonio is quick to point out that two charter schools in Worcester, the Abby Kelley Foster Charter School and the Seven Hills Charter School, are outperformed by students in district schools despite the charter schools’ more favorable demographics. There are also charters rounding out The Boston Globe’s rankings of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Critics cite such evidence of mediocrity as proof that charter schools are a waste of time–and money. Opponents point to the increasing taxpayer dollars going to charter schools. According to Roger Hatch, administrator for school finance for the state Department of Education, tuition paid to charter schools has risen from $43.7 million in fiscal year 1998 to $114.5 million in 2002 (out of $3.2 billion in local aid money that went to public schools across the state that year).

“People have the impression that it is a million here and a million there, but it is a significant investment,” says state Rep. Deborah Blumer, a Framingham Democrat who, along with Rep. Thomas J. O’Brien (D-Kingston), filed a bill last year to keep the state from issuing more charters. The measure failed, but Blumer still believes charters don’t make sense when money is tight.

But there are also many impressive charter schools, including a number in the Globe’s top 10, such as the Community Day Charter School in Lawrence and the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Boston–urban schools that outperform top suburban schools in some subjects. Proponents say these schools are accomplishing what has been dreamed of, but rarely achieved, in public education: leveling the playing field between the haves and the have-nots, which was a key intent of education reform in the first place.

Changing the rules

In addition, charter schools are giving poor and middle-class parents the kind of educational choice otherwise available only to the wealthy. Some argue that this is a critical form of equity: Why should parents who can afford $20,000 a year in private tuition be the only ones with options?

Boston firefighter Troy Osgood is thrilled that his five-year-old son, Troy Jr., can attend the Boston Renaissance Charter School. “A lot of parents don’t make the type of money needed to send their child to a private school. And I don’t think the schools in Boston are really up to par,” says Osgood, who went to Boston public schools himself because his parents couldn’t afford other options, he says. “It’s a very important choice we have.” In Framingham, parent Katie Murphy served on a townwide task force on middle school reform, but after seeing little action in the schools she is grateful her 11-year-old son, Shane Merrifield, can attend the Framingham Community Charter School, which opened this year with grade six and will add grades seven and eight in coming years.

“I don’t think his needs could have been met in the public schools the way they are right now,” says Murphy, who has two other children at Framingham High School. “I am a big public school supporter–but not of the middle schools.”

To Murphy, charter schools give parents options that districts ought to, but sometimes don’t. Just as hospitals have responded to women who insisted on childbirth choices beyond traditional medicated deliveries, says Murphy, who is a nurse, schools have to meet consumer demand. “If we say this 100-plus-year-old model is not working, then this is the natural outcome,” she says of the proliferation of charter schools. “Should it be on the public dime? Yes, I think it should be.”

Parent Katie Murphy with son Shane.
“I don’t think his needs could have been met.”

To the Osgoods and the Murphys, charter schools represent alternatives for parents. But charter schools have also been held out as drivers of educational change. Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation and author of Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, argues that charter schools are critical to rebuilding cities and neighborhoods. Grogan believes the value of charter schools lies not in the data on academic achievement–data he says will be “mixed and murky”–but in the way charter schools foster competition with and prompt change in public schools.

“There is a spur there,” says Grogan. “People in public education have to recognize that, in large urban communities like Worcester and Boston, the condition of public education has been for decades the major reason people exit the city. What that means for these cities is a much smaller middle class than there needs to be.” For that reason, he says, “There is a lot more at stake here than the educators have acknowledged.”

“What’s making them work is their ability to be flexible about rules.”

But what charter schools have to offer the education-reform process is not so much academic experimentation as a chance to change the rules of the educational game. “What’s making them work is their ability to be flexible about rules,” says Sheldon Berman, Hudson school superintendent and president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. This freedom allows charter schools to have longer school days and years and demand higher parent involvement–things research shows aid student achievement.

Spencer Blasdale, director of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, agrees that there “isn’t any magic” in charter schools like his, which has adapted ideas from Asian schools. “There isn’t anything truly revolutionary about what we’re doing.”

But magic can result from something as simple as raising expectations. At Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester, for example, students visit a college campus once a month. Twice a year, they fill out college applications for practice. At City on a Hill Charter School, students all have lists–albeit widely varied–of colleges they might attend. Sophomore Christopher Clark of Mattapan, who attended the first Charter School College Fair sponsored by City on a Hill in October, says the culture of the school has made him work hard and plan for college.

“When I was a freshman, they were talking about all the seniors who got accepted to college,” says Clark. “I thought, when I’m a senior I want my name yelled out across the intercom: ‘Christopher Clark is going to Babson College, scholarship all four years!'”

No easy classes

You can feel the energy of a newly opened charter school the minute you step in the door. At the Framingham Community Charter School, for example, there is excitement about every small accomplishment. The day I visited, Delman and Kaufman were buoyant over the arrival of the first school directory, a thin, blue-jacketed booklet made of folded 8 1/2″-by-11″ paper.

There is also a certain amount of start-up chaos–a race to fetch the clipboard with the list on it that names the students who are getting school lunches as kids head for the cafeteria–and uncertainty about the future. Will they be able to recruit more students next year? More teachers? How long will they have their space?

Codman Academy teachers are charged up about
their job: turning urban kids who struggle
with basic math into college material.

These issues have dogged charter schools since the first 15 were opened in 1995. There are now 16,300 students attending 46 charter schools in Massachusetts, according to Department of Education figures. Another 12,800 students are on waiting lists to get into them. The one thing that charter schools, with all their variety, share, says Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, is the struggle for survival.

Financially, charter schools are, quite simply, public schools. They get operating money from the state through the Chapter 70 funds that go to school districts across Massachusetts. Charter schools are given a per-pupil allotment based on what the district they are located in spends on its students. This funding scheme has drawn fire from the beginning, with critics complaining that the method of calculation gives charters more than their fair share. Charters are also eligible for some state and federal grants.

What charter schools don’t get is a building. That’s why you find them in unusual locations, such as former banks, restaurants, and strip malls, as well as mothballed parochial schools. The lack of permanent space is a constant threat, says Kenen. “If anything will stop the charter school movement, it will be the facilities,” he says. “They could still be the downfall of us.”

Because charters are granted for just five years at a time, it is difficult to get bank financing to buy a building. There is increasing federal support for charters through loan programs, says McIntosh of the DOE, but the money that’s available is small.

For both capital and operating support, some charter schools are cultivating individual donors and corporate partners. In November, Renaissance Charter announced that it had received more than $500,000 in donated services and materials. Partnerships with Boston Private Bank and FleetBoston–along with a federal bond–enabled the Media And Technology Charter High (MATCH) School to purchase and renovate the building on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University once occupied by Ellis the Rim Man, an automotive-parts dealer.

At Roxbury Prep, a law firm enables three students to spend the summer at NASA space camp. What worries Roxbury Prep co-director John King, however, is “how do you sustain private fundraising after the first few years of the school’s existence?” After all, he points out, in the world of philanthropy, funds flow to the hot new idea. “That is a concern,” says King. “Newer nonprofit start-ups have an easier time getting money.”

Whether the novelty will wear off is a concern for charter schools in another area of critical need: teachers.

At Codman Academy Charter School, a small school that opened in 2001, five teachers gather during their lunch break. All have impressive résumés, stuffed with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown, Columbia, Amherst, Harvard, Colby, Wesleyan, Georgetown, and Stanford. And they are all charged up about their job: turning urban kids who struggle with basic math into college material.

Thabiti Brown, a 10th-grade humanities teacher, is so consumed with the responsibility that visions of his students taking the MCAS invade his dreams. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” he says. Brown and his fellow Codman Academy teachers put in 12-hour days, plus some Saturdays. But he says he would never trade his job for teaching in a district school. “It is a beautiful thing that we have the ability to do the things we do–shaping curriculum, being involved in decision-making,” says Brown. “We can turn on a dime, we can decide to do a day of math and all pitch in. If we wanted to do that, we could.”

Math teacher Karen Crounse, who spent last year as a math coach in the Boston public schools, says the intellectual environment among her new colleagues is invigorating. “I went to three high schools in the city of Boston,” she says. “It really did feel like a factory. You feel like some of the teachers–not all–are going through the motions.”

But it is one thing to harness the energy and idealism of twentysomethings and it is another to chew them up and spit them out, exhausted, within a few years. That prospect worries Kim Parker, a ninth-grade humanities teacher who previously taught at the MATCH school, heading up its afternoon tutoring program.

“There’s this frenetic pace, and you put out fires all the time.”

“I left the MATCH because I was burnt out,” says Parker. She has also worked at an Internet start-up, and Parker says that being at a charter school is much the same experience: “There’s this frenetic pace, and you put out fires all the time.” That’s part of the deal when signing onto a charter school, she says. “I don’t want to say you will work until you drop, but you put in a lot.” But Parker wonders how sustainable that deal is over the long run, and not only for herself. “The charter school movement is founded in idealism,” she says, “but there has to be a point where the rubber meets the road.”

Where the rubber is already meeting the road in these start-up schools is in the relationship between teachers and students. Brown and a colleague, biology teacher Juma Crawford, talk about “breaking in” new students, tuning them to the school’s respectful tone and the high expectations. The distinctive cultures of charter schools–which range from the informal atmosphere of Champion Charter School in Brockton to the strict, academy-like setting of Roxbury Prep or the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden–create codes of expectation between students and teachers that, for some, are like familial bonds.

At MATCH, which will not promote students unless they meet standards higher than those in traditional public schools, kids talk about relationships with school leaders in emotional terms. “They love us so much that even if it takes 10 years at this school, they will keep us here,” said Cortni Tyler of Dorchester, 15, a 10th-grader. “Even if you miss one assignment, they will call home. They want to make sure you are on track.”

While many teachers in traditional schools complain about lackluster student motivation, many charters make students work harder than they have ever worked in their lives. Poor grades mean mandatory tutoring. At Roxbury Prep, students have double sessions of math and English to make up for years of poor learning. Saturday school is common. The no-excuses approach is borne of necessity: If kids fail, schools fail.

Growing pains

With schools, as with kids, failure comes in many forms. Bryan Hassel, president of Public Impact, a North Carolina educational consulting firm and author of The Charter School Challenge, says that the start-up phase of the national charter school movement has generally gone well. But not every charter school is a success story–not here, and not around the country. There have been problems, even scandals, in some states that rushed into the charter-school experiment with reckless abandon. In Arizona, which by December 2000 had granted 451 charters good for 15 years, 21 schools have had to be shut down. In California, Gov. Gray Davis signed a law in September subjecting charter schools to stricter regulation after some were found making deals with local districts to get windfalls of state education money, illegally charging tuition to students, or hiring convicted felons to teach.

MATCH student Cortni Tyler on her teachers:
“Even if you miss one assignment, they call home.”

Massachusetts has taken a more cautious approach to the opening of charter schools, requiring detailed plans and state inspections and raising the statewide cap on the number of charters the Board of Education is authorized to issue gradually, from 15 originally to 120 today. That doesn’t mean the state has put up unnecessary roadblocks. Indeed, the Bay State has been one of the most welcoming of charter schools, according to Anna Varghese, director of external affairs for the Center for Education Reform in Washington, DC, a nonprofit organization that supports charter schools. Of the 40 states that have charter school laws on the books, Massachusetts ranks seventh based on the center’s measures of state support.

That caution has helped the Commonwealth avoid embarrassment, but it’s also let the state beg the question: How good is good enough? So far, the state Board of Education has closed exactly one charter school–the Lynn Community Charter School–based on what it considered clear evidence of academic and administrative failure (though even that did not spare the board from tearful protests by loyal parents). Still, the Department of Education’s McIntosh says the state’s stance is clear: Schools that are not academically successful will be shut down.

“It doesn’t mean you have to be outperforming everybody in the world,” says McIntosh. “It means you have to be providing your students with a quality education,” with quality measured in several ways, including MCAS and standardized test scores.

Even those measures are sure to be more closely scrutinized as money grows tighter. Many states are now grappling with the question of how successful charter schools have to be to justify their existence. And it won’t be easy to make that judgment if academic scores are low but waiting lists are long. It is, says McIntosh, “a significant issue at the national level.”

Test scores are not the only growing pains felt by these start-up schools. Last spring, 18 teachers left City on a Hill Charter school, founded as a teacher-driven institution, to protest the adoption of a new management style. Steven Leonard, the former Jeremiah Burke High School headmaster who came to City on a Hill in the summer of 2001, says that with only 16 out of 78 students in one ninth-grade class making it to graduation at the school four years later, leadership there needed revamping.

“We’ve taken an organization that started out with two people–and at its initial stage was five–to 45 people,” says Leonard, who was forced to hire 26 new staff members for the start of the current school year. “You cannot operate an organization of 45 people the same way you operate one with five people. That is the nature of the charter school movement. Our task is to evolve, and our evolution is the struggle that I think all charter schools–Commonwealth charter schools especially–go through as they aim at targets of high student achievement.”

There has also been a game of musical chairs at other schools, as charters have switched or ditched for-profit management companies. Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden traded Advantage for Beacon, while Abby Kelley in Worcester fired Advantage, Renaissance got rid of Edison, Rising Tide in Plymouth booted Beacon, and Somerville Charter broke with SABIS. Some of this change represents growth: charters realizing they can run the school themselves. On the other hand, noted Leonard, part of the transition at City on a Hill is the result of a shift from the creativity of a start-up to the engine of sustainability.

“This whole movement started out with a whole lot of bright, ambitious, really caring people that knew very little about how to operate a full-blown high school,” he says.

Paying the price for competition

Big questions are posed by charter school success as well.In 1993, charter schools were cast as the entrepreneurial ingredient in the education reform recipe. As they grew, charter schools were expected to spur district schools to improve performance, and many felt that district schools which failed to meet this challenge should face financial consequences. When such a leap seemed too harsh–and opposition seemed too intense–the framers of the Education Reform Act decided the state would reimburse districts for students attending charter schools under a formula that called for diminishing payments over three years. But last year, when the state budget grew tight, then-acting Gov. Jane Swift vetoed the reimbursements altogether.

For some, it was high time. Charles Chieppo, spokesman for the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that supports charter schools, says districts talk too much about losing dollars and not enough about losing students. “It is like taxicabs in Boston,” says Chieppo. School districts, he says, “go out of their way to make sure there is no competition. Despite the fact that charter schools are working at a disadvantage, district schools are very scared right now.”

In some cases, not so much scared as angry. Superintendent Caradonio says he doesn’t object to charters outright, but he is outraged that state aid that would otherwise go to the Worcester public schools is going to charter schools with academic performance that is no better than average. “If they were truly showing us the way on how to deal with dropouts, how to deal with kids with special needs, and were true laboratories, then it would be worth $9,000 a kid,” he says. But instead of doing more with less, he says, “they are doing less with more.”

“The dollars don’t work out,” says lawmaker Deborah Blumer, who opposed the opening of the Framingham Community Charter School in the town she represents. “There are charter schools opening in districts where the kids are successful and the schools are successful. I’m not sure how you can justify spending the additional funds.”

But Kaufman, at Framingham Community Charter, doesn’t see the need to justify anything. It is the taxpayer’s money–not the school system’s, he says. His charter school gives Framingham parents a chance to send a signal about the town’s school-improvement efforts by voting with their feet. “It must have been frustrating [for district administrators] to get a message from at least 100 families that the improvements weren’t happening quickly enough,” he says.

In Boston, Superintendent Thomas Payzant knows something about families voting with their feet. The city is home to 14 of the state’s 46 charter schools. Three more are slated to open next year.

“We have a lot of good schools in Boston, but there is always the allure of something new, something perceived to be different,” says Payzant. Nonetheless, he sees the existence of charter schools as a positive force. A two-year-old Project for School Innovation has brought together 10 charter and nine district schools to collaborate on specific projects. Charters have also, he says, “made some realize there is competition for our students. We can’t in any way afford to sit on our laurels, but have to innovate, change, and improve our competitive edge.”

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What has Payzant pleased is that district schools are starting to fight back. He says nearly half the students enrolled in the new Tech Boston Academy, a small Gates Foundation-funded “pilot” high school (an in-district equivalent to charter schools, agreed to by the Boston Teachers Union shortly after the charter-school law was approved) came from charter, parochial, private, and METCO schools.

But Payzant is also relieved. In October, the state Department of Education announced that Boston was reaching its local limit for charter schools. Under state law, not only is there a cap on the charters that can be issued statewide, but funds directed to charter schools also may not exceed 9 percent of spending by the district they are located in. According to the DOE, charter schools in Boston will reach 6.3 percent this fiscal year and hit the ceiling a few years later. That means only one or two of six additional schools whose proposals are pending could be granted charters. It would seem that, in the place where charter schools have most taken hold, competition will be taken only so far.