Robert Russa Moton High School

Credit: National Archives

Question 2: Lifting The Charter School Cap Doesn't Add Up

October 7, 2016

Not far from where vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine debated is a museum. It was once a school. From the 1940s and into the '50s, the Robert Russa Moton High School was a single-story run-down building. Moton students—all African-American—never had enough books and those they had were hand-me-downs. There was no cafeteria, science lab or any of the other resources readily available for the students enrolled elsewhere. "Separate but equal" was the law of the land, brutally so in Prince Edward County, Va., and nobody expected that to change. But years later, when I toured that school-turned-museum, I was impressed by evidence of the teachers, and parents’ commitment to the students’ learning. Their fierce determination embodied in a sign prominently posted during those days, reading, “The road to freedom is education.”

From Jim Crow segregated buildings to underfunded urban schools, many minority and poor families have often gotten the short end of the public education stick. It’s why they are often embracers of reform, curriculum innovation, school integration, and any number of other initiatives that promise a chance at improving the odds. And it’s why many are voting yes on Ballot Question 2, which would add 12 new public charter schools across Massachusetts. More chances, supporters say, for the thousands of minority and low-income students who, they claim, are waitlisted every year.

Have charters successfully leveled the proverbial playing field for the kids who are most disadvantaged? Bay State Banner publisher Melvin Miller says yes. He points to the Edward W. Brooke Charter School where last year the kids “outperformed students from the affluent towns of Weston, Newton, and Belmont” on one of the college readiness tests.

But I am not convinced. How can the mountains of positive data be trusted when side-by-side comparisons aren’t based on the same factors? Traditional public schools have to follow certain regulations about staffing, curriculum, and hours. And they must take all students. Charters are free to custom design school staffing and operations. And they don’t have to take the most challenging students.

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson opposes the charter expansion proposal because it is built off the backs of district schools who lose funding when public school students enroll in charter schools. Jackson points out the lost funding pays for “art, music and electives.” Supporters of charter expansion insist that isn’t true. They cite a Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation study. But, that same report doesn’t acknowledge that the state has stiffed the school districts for the last three years, not paying back the reimbursements due them. That’s why Superintendent Tommy Chang—long a charter school supporter—isn’t convinced either because he says, “there is no funding tied to this measure.” And it’s also a no on Question 2 for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is “very concerned” about the thousands of children “living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters.”

Meanwhile, I can’t figure out why the charter cap expansion has gotten so much big money from corporations both here and outside the state. WGBH News reporter Isaiah Thompson discovered that “no single ballot question has drawn as much in donations.” And I still wonder what was the incentive, last year, when three lawyers from three competing white-shoe law firms jointly filed a lawsuit claiming fewer charters denied minority students’ civil rights. Call me cynical but I don’t believe the high-priced lawyers' donated time, and the millions in contributions are about making sure all of Massachusetts’ students have a better education. I’m far from a mathematician, but something just doesn’t add up.

No on Question 2.


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