A Democrat’s Case for Charter Schools

Boston charter schools achieve tremendous results. They rank among the top public schools in the state, with long wait lists. The majority of Massachusetts voters tell pollsters they want more charter schools.

So why did some Boston elected officials vote last week to oppose more charters? I can tell you why, because, at one time, I was one of them.

As a first-time candidate for the state House of Representatives, I agreed to support charter schools only if the state changed the way it funded them. That position sounds right on the surface. Dig deeper, and you realize that the funding formula isn’t the issue. It’s a talking point that masks the real issue: teachers unions oppose public charter schools no matter how successful they are.

Then, as now, elected leaders try to have it both ways – supporting public charter schools in word and opposing them in deed.

As a lawyer, I relentlessly go where the evidence takes me. The evidence about charter schools and the extraordinary academic results they often achieve caused me to rethink my position. On this issue, I freely admit that I was wrong.

It takes courage to stand up to special interests. It takes courage for Democrats to stand up to organized labor and say that kids come first. I lost endorsements and campaign contributions. I gained new supporters and respect from those who disagreed with me but understood that I based my decision on data and my judgment of what is best for kids.

I appreciate the political dilemma Boston city councilors faced last week when they voted on whether or not to endorse Question 2, a November ballot question that would expand the number of public charter schools statewide. Supporting more charter schools means going against the teachers unions, who often play an outsized role in city council elections.

Yet opposing more charter schools means blocking access to great schools for the 10,000 Boston families with children on charter school waiting lists, who are desperate to give their children a better education and a brighter future.

Some city councilors spoke about how they believe charter schools take money away from district schools. What they didn’t say: the funding follows a student to whichever public school educates the child, and the state sends additional money to a traditional school district for six years after a student departs for a public charter to cover the district’s transitional costs.

Ultimately the charter school battle has as much to do with the incentives in our political system as it does with school funding. Teachers unions have persuaded many Democrats that they face political peril if they support charters, when the truth is President Obama, former Gov. Deval Patrick, and Hillary Clinton, all Democrats, support them. But it’s far easier for elected officials to go along with powerful special interests that help elect and re-elect them.

Charter schools aren’t right for everyone. In fact, the vast majority of children will attend district schools, which is why I’ve devoted so much of my career to improving district schools. In my ideal world, Boston Public Schools would rank as every family’s first choice. Until that day, we should honor families and their desires for better options for their children.

Question 2 maximizes opportunity for students, which fulfills our moral obligation to meet their educational needs. It’s disappointing to see so many Boston city councilors adopt the easy “it's about money” argument rather than stand on the side of families who want a great public education for their children, including at charter schools.

As a Democrat, I believe government can help make people’s lives better and should focus on the most effective ways to do that. Charter schools work, which is why I support Question 2.

Marty Walz, a Democrat, represented Boston and Cambridge in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 2005-2013. She currently serves as the Chair of the Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts Advisory Council.


 


This piece was originally published in the Boston Herald.