Charter schools are a key component of the education reforms enacted in Massachusetts more than two decades ago. There could be some benefit to a campaign debate that focused on the schools: what they do well, what they do poorly, which of their innovations could be replicated in conventional public schools and why they haven’t been.
Instead, the debate over Question 2, which would allow the expansion of charter schools in low-performing districts where they are capped by state law, has been all about money. What’s best for children has been all but ignored.
So let’s start with the kids. Charter schools in Massachusetts have been deemed among the best in the country in rigorous studies by researchers from Stanford, MIT, the Brookings Institution and others. Compared to students in nearby district schools and, more significantly, to students who wanted to attend a charter school but lost out in the lottery used to select students, charter school students outscore their peers on standardized tests like the MCAS and SATs, take more Advanced Placement tests and are more likely to attend a 4-year college. Charter schools have shown dramatic success at reducing the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers. They have had noteworthy success with special education students, English language learners and children who start out with educational deficits.
Because all charters are different by design, they achieve their success through different means. Many have a longer school day, providing more time for a richer curriculum and one-on-one instruction, and a longer school year, reducing summer learning loss, which is a major cause of the achievement gap. Some offer intensive tutoring; some make special efforts to reduce truancy; some require school uniforms and enforce higher standards in discipline. Others emphasize science, the arts or experiential learning.
These policies are not some deep dark secret the charter schools refuse to share with traditional school districts. Nor is there a lack of accountability for charter schools. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is picky about which applications for charter schools are approved, and has already revoked the charters of 18 schools who failed to succeed in their educational mission. You’d be hard pressed to find a handful of district schools shut down for educational malpractice.
But the opponents of Question 2 don’t want to talk about the success of charter schools, or why many district schools refuse to adopt the policies that have worked so well in charters. They certainly don’t want to talk about the 32,000 Massachusetts students whose names are on waiting lists for charter schools. What they want to talk about are the awful, terrible things charter schools do to district school budgets.
OK, let’s talk about budgets. To hear the opponents of Question 2, you’d think charter schools have forced deep cuts in school spending. But district school budgets are up across the board. Boston now spends more than $1 billion on its district schools, up 25 percent over the last five years. It spent $18,371 per pupil in fiscal year 2015 – which is higher than Wellesley’s $18,185. In every district we’ve checked, per-pupil spending today is $1,000 to $2,000 higher than five years ago. And in just about every case, charter schools spend less per-pupil than the district schools in the communities they serve.
School budgets are tight across Massachusetts, but money diverted when a child chooses a charter school has little to do with it. The rising cost of salaries and benefits, notably health care, play a bigger role, along with the cost of special education. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau cites the inability of that city’s school district to reduce excess capacity as a major contributor to its school budget woes. The state reimburses school districts for money lost to charter tuitions over six years to soften the blow. Yes, the Legislature has in recent years fallen short of its commitment to full reimbursement. But 20 years after Boston began losing students and funding to charter schools, it should have been able to adjust.
Lifting the cap on charter schools would have almost no impact on suburban or rural schools districts. Most are nowhere near the cap, and the state isn’t interested in new suburban charter schools
All stopping Question 2 would do is deny educational opportunities to thousands of kids in a handful of cities, including Boston, Lowell, Holyoke and Fall River. Those are the places where charter schools have had the greatest success, and where children need them the most.
We support more funding for education, distributed according to a more equitable formula. But we must not sacrifice the state’s neediest children on the altar of district school budgets. We urge a YES vote on Question 2.