Ballot #2: It's all about choice

This op-ed by Susan Passoni originally appeared on the South End Patch

On November 8 voters will be asked to vote on a proposed law that would allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools or increase enrollment in existing charter schools each year. I know how I will vote but wanted to share the reasoning since there are a lot of mistruths out there. My decision to vote yes on #2 is simply to provide for many of the underserved children in our Commonwealth and, Boston in particular, the option to attend the best public school possible- a choice that many families do not have today. We should not begrudge those less fortunate a quality education because of where they can afford to live; it is discriminatory and one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.

I was lucky. I attended parochial school from kindergarten through college. It was not because my family had strong catholic values. Rather, it was because the public schools in my community were not going to offer me the education my parents felt was adequate. My parents, a department store employee and a bartender, had limited means, but fortunately at the time parochial schools were affordable options to working class families. As such, I benefited from an education that provided me with numerous options in my life and my career.

Today, there are far fewer parochial schools and, the few that exist are not affordable to many working class and low-income families. As a result, in some communities district public schools, regardless of the quality of education they provide, are the only option for these families and their children’s education. They simply have no other choice.

The idea that families have limited or no choice is what is so disconcerting. In a state that embraces the freedom to marry whom we choose and a woman’s right to choose it seems paradoxical that we don’t embrace choice in public school education.

Charter schools are public schools and have existed in Massachusetts for about 20 years. In Boston, there are 125 district public schools serving 56,000 students versus 16 charter public schools serving 10,000 students. Charter schools were started in Massachusetts by a group of educators and legislators who envisioned creating and adopting alternative solutions to educating our youth. Charter public schools are no different than district public schools except that a charter public school can adopt its own curriculum (as opposed to a state designated curriculum). However, if a charter school fails and is not compliant with its mission, the state can shut it down. Charter public schools are also free to hire whom they want and don’t need to employ union labor. On the surface, those are the only differences between district and charter public schools.

However, when you look at how charter schools operate and educate our youth that is where the disparities begin.

1. Charter schools typically have longer school days and school years.

2. Charter schools enroll students via a lottery. Charter schools have no ability to screen, select or cherry pick the best students. Charter lotteries are state mandated, are blind and are open to any family. To date, there are 32,000 children on public charter school waiting lists in Massachusetts.

3. Charter schools serve a highly diverse student body. In Boston, the 10,000 charter school students are comprised of: 53% African Americans, 33% Latinos, 8% white, 1% Asian and 5% other. By comparison, the 56,000 Boston district public school students are comprised of 33% African Americans, 41% Latinos, 14% white, 8% Asian and 4% other. Thus, on a percentage basis, Boston charter schools have far greater diversity than the district schools. Further, 16% of the 10,000 charter school students are students with disabilities versus 19% for Boston district schools and 43% are in poverty versus 50% for Boston district schools.

4. Charter schools educate English language learners (ELL). In Boston, district schools ELLs represent 30% of total enrollment versus 13% for Boston charter schools. Part of this disparity is due to the fact that because charter schools rely on a lottery for enrollment it is impossible to control who they educate.

However, how well do Boston district schools educate their ELL students? According to a March 2015 review of the City of Boston’s education programs by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, Boston failed to provide sufficient specialized education for ELLs - 49% of ELLs in the middle grades and the high schools in Boston were receiving either insufficient levels of specialized instruction or none at all and 24% of Boston’s elementary school ELLs were reported as being similarly under-educated.

5. Boston charter schools are outperforming their district peers. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Boston Globe, four year graduation rates for Boston charter schools is 80% versus 69% for Boston district schools. 53% of Boston charter schools are high performing versus 20% for the district and while 10% of Boston public schools are underperforming and 2% are chronically underperforming, the percentage for charter schools in both instances is 0%.

A recent Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) report noted that on average students in Boston charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics, where the average growth rate of Boston charter students in math and reading is the largest CREDO has seen in any city or state. Moreover, 83% of charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains relative to their district peers in reading and math. In a 2016 study by Harvard and MIT it was found that 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.

6. Charter schools are publicly funded, which is why they are public schools. When a student moves from a district to a charter school funding follows that student (the same would be true if the student were to attend a pilot school). However, the Boston school district is reimbursed over a six-year period 225% of the tuition for the loss of that student (100% in the first year and 25% per year for the next five years). Based on the reimbursement policies in place from 1995 to 2011, Boston district schools have received nearly $150 million for the loss of these students despite not having to educate them.

More important, since 2011 despite the growing number of students in Boston charter schools, Boston district public school’s budget continued to grow from $831 million to over $1 billion in 2016. Thus, there has been no drain on resources to Boston public schools, in fact they actually benefit when a student leaves and is enrolled in a charter school.

It is also important to note, Boston public school teachers have one of the shortest workdays and teacher work years in the country (182 days). In addition, Boston district teachers have the highest starting salaries in the region and the highest average salaries in Massachusetts. Boston teachers can reach their maximum salary in only nine years, significantly sooner that the national average of 22 years, due in part to the largest salary raise occurring between a teacher’s first and second year (such compensation practices, while effective in teacher retention, also may prove imprudent since there is little time to assess whether that teacher is effective, worth retaining or worthy of tenure).

I would argue the money spent to pay public school teachers is one of the best investments in our youth. What doesn’t add is the claim that charter schools are taking money out of district school coffers. At the end of the day, charter, district and pilot schools are all public schools, and are publicly funded. Period.

When you have proven success it seems incredulous to denounce the benefits that charter schools bring to our city, the Commonwealth but most important to our families and their children. While not all charter schools are excelling, the majority of them are and, those in our larger cities are making huge strides at narrowing the achievement gap. Providing choice in public schooling is a fundamental right. Giving children the option to learn more and do better has significant implications that go beyond their own experience, it ultimately affects their families and the communities in which they reside.

The right to choose is a powerful tool that our democracy has provided each and every one of its citizens. It is even more powerful when choice is given to those less fortunate. Providing quality education provides an individual with the ability to make choices in their lives and their careers. Choice in public education potentially bridges the divide between the haves and the have-nots. On November 8th the choice is yours. 

Susan Passoni is a South End resident. She previously ran for elected office at both the city and state level and was proudly endorsed by both the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). She also is a founding board member of Excel Academy Charter Schools, a top-performing network of middle schools and high school with campuses in East Boston and Chelsea, serving roughly 800 students, 75% of which are Latino and 80% low income and over half of which speak a language other than English at home.