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Charter Schools: It's An Issue Of Civil Rights

October 25, 2016

Question 2 on the ballot in November asks whether the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education may increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts by 12 each year. When I began researching this issue, I expected to find evidence to support my instinct to vote against the question. However, after considerable research and an exchange of views with various people, I have changed my mind. I intend to vote "yes" on Question 2. Here is why I reached this conclusion.

Massachusetts now has 69 charter schools in operation (1). Four percent of Massachusetts students attend charter schools. There are 25 charter schools in Boston. Any Boston child may apply to any charter school in Boston, and if more children apply to a particular school than there are slots available then a lottery is held. A charter school is not controlled by the local school committee, the teachers are not members of the Boston Teacher’s Union (unless they vote to join) and the schools have much more flexibility than public schools on how to allocate budgeted funds, length of school day, curriculum, hiring unlicensed teachers, etc. In practice charter schools tend to be more discipline-oriented and have longer school days. The waiting list to gain entry to charter schools in Boston is 10,300.

The Democratic Party in Massachusetts has voted to oppose Question 2. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the most popular Democrat in the state, is a strong proponent of vouchers that would permit students to attend any public school anywhere in the state. Originally undecided about Question 2, Warren announced she would vote against Question 2. She did not explain her reasoning in any detail citing her concern for children left behind and noted the “extraordinary results” achieved by many charter schools. I too favor the Warren advocacy of vouchers and agree with her position summarized in an Aug. 26, 2016 Commonwealth Magazine article:

“The concept of public schools is “deeply American” and embodies “the notion that merit rather than money determines a child’s future,” Warren writes. “But who are we kidding? As parents increasingly believe the differences among schools will translate into differences in lifetime chances, they are doing everything they can to buy into the best public schools.” She mocks the idea of even calling schools in more affluent communities truly public, since they are only open to the families with the financial means to live there, with poorer families locked out. “At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where-you-live dictates where-you go to school,” she writes. Warren says the solution is to break up the “ironclad relationship” between location and school and declares, “A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly." (2)

The Warren position underscores the raw truth about the Massachusetts system for providing education in public schools. It is a de facto racist system in which the state allows school districts to be drawn along municipal borders, allows municipalities to limit enrollment to residents and allows municipalities to zone so that it is difficult for affordable housing to be built in the lily-white suburbs. This system has maximized school choice for white families—they (at least those with financial flexibility) can choose whatever school that they think meets the needs of their children in any district where they can afford to live. In this context Greater Boston schools are more segregated than they ever were. However, because minorities are disproportionately poor, and the suburbs are often viewed as not welcoming to minority students, minorities stay in Boston (and in other minority enclaves like Lawrence) and their choice of schools is limited to whatever is available within the city. My conclusion is that at a minimum we should help minorities maximize their choice and improve opportunities for their children by creating more charter schools.

Massachusetts has not adopted a voucher system, as recommended by Warren, but it does minimally support the METCO program. I say minimally as there are only 3,300 students in the program and 10,000 children on a waiting list. METCO pays for transportation to a suburban school for families in Boston and Springfield who choose to participate; suburban schools participate voluntarily. The state reimburses a suburban school for some of the cost of educating an urban child and when a child attends a suburban school, Boston loses the state funds paid per child attending the public schools of the city. I mention METCO here as its essential characteristics are: giving urban children more choice of schools; “skimming” children from the city’s schools who are from families who are “more engaged”; and a loss of funding for the city. Thus, any person who supports the METCO program has to be able to distinguish the choice of METCO from the choice of charter schools.

My orientation, leading me to favor more charter schools, is Boston and improving the educational outcomes for African-American children in particular. They suffer from the long tragic history of slavery, Jim Crow and the prison pipeline. There is also considerable data on educational outcomes in Boston while there is much less data from charters in other cities. My hope is that the legislature, faced with the obligation to increase the number of charters if Question 2 passes, will intervene and require most of the increase to be in cities like Boston where there is a proven record of charter school success.

Harvard and MIT researchers have issued a number of reports analyzing charter schools in Boston. The most comprehensive report is Kane, Let the Numbers Have Their Say (2016). It covers every issue and concludes:

“... many charter schools in Boston and other urban areas in Massachusetts are generating gains in achievement that are large enough to close achievement gaps by race and income over time. It is an historic achievement, and it’s no wonder that thousands of students in Boston and other low-income urban centers in the state would prefer such schools over their district schools.”

There are a number of criticisms that have been passionately asserted by charter school opponents. Almost all of the criticism is based upon the failures of charter schools in many other states. John Oliver for example presented a biting critique of charters based upon their dismal, and sometimes corrupt, performance in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Massachusetts and Boston are not Ohio and Pennsylvania. The charters here are very different and our schools should not be judged by the failures elsewhere.

Charter Criticism Review

I will now review the specific criticisms asserted by charter school opponents and then provide evidence of why those criticisms do not apply, or are not sufficient, to conclude that more charters should not be allowed in Boston:

1. There is no significant difference in educational outcomes comparing public and charter schools.

Some opponents of charters assert that national data shows that too many charters underperform public schools and therefore more charters in Massachusetts should not be supported. Instead, they argue, the effort should be to improve the public schools. This is not a valid argument when considering charters in Boston for these reasons: Charter schools in Boston are the best performing schools in the country (3); charter school students in Boston substantially achieve more than their Boston public school counterparts (4); and urban public schools have been poorly performing for many decades. There is no reason to believe that there is the will or ability to suddenly upgrade performance in the present rigid bureaucratized urban public schools.

2. Charters drain money from the public schools

This is the most difficult issue to fully research. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau concluded in an April 2016 study that Boston schools have not lost any money as a result of charter school enrollment (5). The reasons for this conclusion are twofold: The state reimburses Boston a percentage of monies lost because of the diversion of charter school tuition; and the city has made up the remaining difference out of its General Fund. The most comprehensive review of whether charter schools have a negative impact on the affected public school districts was just released. It was researched and written by the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. The Boston Foundation funded the research. The Foundation report concludes: “Examination of school funding trends in districts affected by charter school enrollments does not suggest that charter schools are over-funded, that students in district schools are suffering a loss of support, or that the per-student funding of districts is trending negatively. Rather, per-student funding has increased quite steadily across the state, and the district-charter balance has been stable” (6). Kane suggests on page 16 that if public schools experience long run budget issues, “procrastination” is one explanation. However, he also emphasizes that the long budget run effects are unclear.

It could also be argued that state and city reimbursement in the future may not continue to make Boston financially whole. That is a good point but it is not a sufficient point for the following reasons:

a. It makes sense that the city’s schools receive less money when it has fewer kids to educate as a result of children leaving and enrolling in charter schools instead of public schools—educating fewer children costs less.

b. Charters receive the average “foundational cost” of educating a child in the city. (7) It is important to keep in mind that Boston does not “lose” the approximately $15,000 average foundational cost that is paid to a charter for each charter child in Boston: The city no longer has to educate a child educated instead by a charter school and there has always been substantial reimbursement by the state. The governor has proposed to consolidate the reimbursement formula to 100 percent in the first year, 50 percent in the second year and 25 percent in the third year. Is that enough money and enough time for the public schools to adjust to lower enrollment even if the city does not, or cannot, continue to reimburse the schools from its General Fund for any gap in funding? That’s unclear but there is no evidence that any net loss will substantially affect the children who remain in the Boston Public Schools.

c. It is sometimes argued that public schools have a fixed overhead—it has to heat and maintain a building, pay administrative overhead, etc., even after some of its children leave for a charter school. That is a correct observation but the reimbursement formula is designed to ameliorate that problem in the short run giving the public schools time to reassign students and staff and perhaps close buildings not fully occupied (8).

d. Even if there is a future gap in reimbursement to the city’s schools that is still not a sufficient reason to vote against charter schools. To reach that conclusion one should engage in a utilitarian analysis: estimate the amount of the anticipated future financial loss, the effect of that loss on city public schools and conclude that the effect of the public school financial loss—the reimbursement gap—is greater than the gain from more children (in charter schools) achieving more, being more likely to graduate and more likely to attend post-secondary schools.

3. Charters will further segregate the public schools.

The schools in Boston are 86 percent minority children. White flight to the suburbs during the past 40 years (the minority population of Boston in 1970 was about 20 percent) left a segregated city with the state legislature over the years doing very little to prevent municipal zoning and suburban resistance to affordable housing from fostering segregation. Thus, racial integration of the schools of Boston is no longer possible unless white students are bused in from the suburbs (9).

4. Charters exclude special education students.

Apparently, in the early years of charter schools, Boston special ed students were underrepresented in charter schools. The data gathered by the DESE and a recent MIT study (10) conclude that is no longer true and, in fact, special needs students, when compared to their public school counterparts, achieve more in school, are more likely to graduate, more likely to earn a state merit scholarship and more likely to be integrated in regular classrooms (11).

5. Charters exclude English Language Learners.

Apparently, in the early years of Charter schools, Boston ELL students were underrepresented in charter schools. However, ELL students are presently enrolled in Boston charters at approximately the same percent as in the public schools (12).

6. Charters suspend students more.

In November, 2014, The Boston Globe reported that students in Boston charter schools were disproportionately suspended. Suspension is viewed by many educators as a sign of failure by a school to deal effectively with disciplinary issues. Charters often defend higher rates of suspension as part of their core message that improved performance requires discipline. While Boston charters suspend more children, according to DESE, none of those suspended were expelled. Martha Minow (13), author of "In Brown’s Wake" (2010), an analysis of Brown v. Board of Education, refers to Department of Defense schools as the most successful examples of bringing about racial integration (something not achieved in the public schools) and high achievement through setting high expectations, discipline and compelled parent involvement.

7. The NAACP and Black Lives Matter oppose charter schools.

The national opposition by these important groups is based upon their assessment of the sorry performance of too many charters nationally. (14) But, as previously stated, Boston’s charters are not similar to the national average. Boston’s charters are No. 1; their performance by every measure is outstanding. (15) Thus, it makes sense to oppose charters nationally but not locally. Massachusetts does not operate its public schools as they do in Mississippi, Ohio or Pennsylvania. It also does not operate its charters as they do in other states. And, whatever national groups, such as the NAACP, may say, African-American families in Boston overwhelmingly support charter schools. (16)

8. Charter schools are not sufficiently monitored.

The Massachusetts DESE monitors charter schools in many ways: It conducts a detailed review of each comprehensive charter application; each charter is required to measure student performance the same as the public schools; data on test performance, as well as many other items, such as suspension rates, are broken down by race, income, special needs students, English language learners, etc.; a charter is only allowed to operate for five years when it must reapply for charter status. At that time a comprehensive review is undertaken. To date, 14 Massachusetts charters have lost their right to operate and others have been put on probation with specified conditions.

9. For-profit corporations will run charters into the ground to maximize profits.

In Massachusetts, unlike many other states, for-profit companies are not allowed to operate charter schools.

10. Parents who are less engaged and less motivated will not choose charter schools, so that will put an even greater burden on public schools.

Those children with “unengaged parents” have been in the public schools with and without charter schools. Not many people proposed legislative mandates when white families chose to flee to the suburbs leaving the unengaged, as well as poorer and minority families behind. It therefore seems hypocritical for people—particularly white suburban people—to oppose charters when minority families are now choosing that educational option for their children.

Boston has three exam schools including the heralded Boston Latin School. Exam schools take the “cream” and leave others behind in schools that are often underperforming. To be consistent, doesn’t anyone who believes a “creaming” argument is a principal reason to vote “no" on Question 2 also have to oppose exam schools (where minority students excel)? Doesn’t anyone who supports METCO—also an excellent program—have to support charter schools to be logically consistent? I personally favor all three choices: exam schools, METCO and charters.

Children who do not choose charter schools and who remain in the public schools are not necessarily “left behind.” One-third of the students in Boston Public schools are now in exam schools. Because those schools are so highly regarded, and their students perform so well, most would presumably remain in the public schools. If there is a cohort of underperforming students that are indeed left behind because their parents are struggling, just don’t care or don’t have time to meaningfully choose schools, then public officials should respond by providing more resources and programs for those children. That would be much better public policy than depriving another group of children of an opportunity proven to be successful.

11. Charters are controlled by boards that are not publicly elected and are not reflective of their communities.

This is an important point and a too valid criticism as charter boards of directors are very white, usually do not include representatives from important local constituencies such as parents and local community groups, and tend to have too many wealthy financial people on their boards (17). This could be remedied by the DESE or the state Legislature so it is not necessarily a reason to oppose charters. Keep in mind that the main point in opposition is that there is not adequate public control over charters. What is “adequate” is debatable. It can be said that there is in fact considerable public input with respect to each charter: the DESE, a public institution, reviews and must approve each charter application, after five years the DESE must decide whether to renew a charter and most significantly, the public decides whether to send children to a charter school. In summary, the public is kept informed of a charter’s performance by annual detailed DESE reports and if a charter is underperforming, the public can vote with its feet, withdraw children from an underperforming school and seek another charter or public school.

12. The charter movement is a union busting effort.

That certainly is the view of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which is the principal source of funds supporting a “no” vote.” It is fair to say that two of the principal motivations supporting charter schools are to bypass rigid public school bureaucracies and rules and inflexible public school teachers unions. Under Massachusetts law, charter teachers are not automatically a member of the local teachers union. To obtain membership, a charter’s teachers must vote to join the local. To the best of my knowledge only one of 79 Massachusetts charter schools has voted to join a union (the American Federation of Teachers, by the staff of a Brighton charter) (18). Boston Public Schools teachers are well paid; the average salary is about $90,000 plus benefits. Examples often cited to indicate the obstructionism of the Boston Teachers Union are its insistence that automatic step raises continue, its fierce resistance both to merit pay and increasing hours in a school day, and requirements that seniority determines placement in most instances. It is also reported that 100 teachers in Boston remained idle because they could not be laid off under union rules. That means approximately $10 million, plus benefits, are being paid for teachers who are not teaching. Opponents argue that charter teachers are underpaid and overworked. Boston charter teacher salaries in 2015 were on average $20,000 less than their public school counterparts. It is reported that charter teachers are younger than public school teachers which may explain the difference. I personally conclude that the teachers union in Boston has been good for teachers but is too often rigid and obstructionist when it comes to improving education for children. My somewhat negative view of the Boston Teachers Union was not a significant factor influencing my decision to vote “yes” on Question 2.

In conclusion, I hope that people will vote "yes" in support of Question 2 because it is the best available mechanism for giving more African-American and Latino children a better education. Second, the Massachusetts opposition to Question 2 is not that public schools should be preferred to private schools—charter schools are public schools. Rather, the dispute is over the details: The adequacy of the reimbursement formula, performance by and treatment of special ed and ELL students, suspension rates, the effect on children “left behind,” the representative-ness of boards of directors, etc. Third, one can critique a particular aspect of charters but the big picture is that children in charters in Boston achieve more however measured. Therefore, it is my view that Massachusetts voters, and the civil rights community in particular, should be on the side of more charters in Massachusetts, and that if there are any deficiencies we should fix the deficiencies rather than trying to bury the concept. Finally, it would be sad and patronizing, because of overwhelming support for charters in Boston, for white people in the suburbs, based upon ideological rigidity or some other reason, to conclude “we know better than minority parents in Boston,” so we will vote against Question 2. Instead, vote "yes" on Question 2.

Footnotes

1. Two types of charter schools in MA. The type of charter not at issue in Question 2 is the Horace Mann charter. There are nine Horace Mann charters in the state.

2. President Obama also indicated his enthusiastic support of charter schools in an April 29, 2016 Proclamation declaring the first week of May as National Charter School Week.

3. Urban Charter School Study Report of 41 Regions, CREDO Study by Stanford University (2015). There is an excellent review of the CREDO Report at Richard Kahlenberg, A Smarter Charter, Chapter 4 (2014). He does not dispute that students in Boston charters achieve more but he cautions that the achievement of charter students may not derive from being in a charter school but may be traced to the fact that the peer group in charters may be different and stronger. Then he says, the differential results would conform with other studies concluding that the effect of peer group on educational outcomes is significant.

4. Ibid.

5. The Boston Public Schools issued an undated report detailing how PPS will suffer financially if more children in Boston exit to charters. The report does not mention the BMRB report so presumably it was written before the BMRB report.

6. Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation, Public Education Funding In Massachusetts: Putting Charter Schools In Context, p. 23 (September 2016).

7. The reimbursement formula and the funding of charter schools in Massachusetts is best explained here.

8. I do not mean to suggest that closing a neighborhood school is an easy task and a rational reimbursement formula must take that real politic into account.

9. Zero possibility of that happening and it would be a bad idea to try: a backlash would undoubtedly follow and be extremely divisive.

10. Setren, E, Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools (12.00.15)

11. There is a very sophisticated National Education Policy Center Review of the MIT Study at Mead, J. and Weber, M., Review of Special Education and English Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools (February 2016). It does not dispute the conclusion that Special Ed and ELL students achieve more in charter schools. And it characterizes the MIT study as “a significant initial contribution.” Id at p. 14. However it concludes that the gains are not as substantial as concluded and there are numerous factors that were not considered that may have affected the result such as “engaged parents” and more staff allocated in charters.

12. Ibid. “In fact, the city’s charters now seem to be serving just as many impoverished and minority kids and almost as many ELLs and special-education students as district schools do, and their attrition rates are lower.” Slade, Rachel, Boston Magazine (09.16). The DESE recently concluded that the ELLs in Boston charters is equivalent to percent in BPS.

13. Harvard Law school Dean.

14. The position of national African American groups is not unified. The Black Alliance for Educational Options just announced that it was “stunned” by the NAACP’s opposition to charters. http://www.baeo.org/?ns_ref=11&id=7648

15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_htSPGAY7I

16. Seventy-five percent of Boston parents support more charter schools. See footnote 3, supra, and accompanying text.

17. The racial and gender composition of the Boston School Committee , and the qualifications of its members has improved substantially over the years. It still does not come close to mirroring the 86% minority student population and the Chair, while highly qualified, is a white male from the financial sector.

18. I have not found any analysis of why none of the other 78 charters have unionized nor have I discovered any news reports of teachers being intimidated not to form a union.


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