The following op-ed by Marty Walz originally appeared in print in The Beacon Hill Times.
If all you know about Question 2, the ballot question that would lift the cap on public charter schools, is what you’ve seen on TV – chances are good you’re confused about how to vote.
As the author of the current charter school law when I was a state Representative and House Chair of the Education Committee, I’m voting yes and ask you to do the same.
Here are the facts. Voting yes on Question 2 would allow more public charter schools to open in the nine cities where new charters can’t open today because of an arbitrary cap imposed by state law. Boston is one of those nine cities. The ballot question has no impact on the 342 cities and towns not near the cap. But, for these nine cities, it would mean that more children would have more access to a world-class public education.
A vocal minority of charter school opponents are doing their best to convince voters that charters drain money from public schools. This is nothing more than a scare tactic. What the TV ads don’t say: charter schools are public schools, and, as with all public schools, the taxpayer funds allocated for a child’s education follow the child to whatever public school is educating him or her.
Moreover, a recent report by the nonpartisan Boston Municipal Research Bureau confirmed that charter schools are not causing Boston Public Schools’ budget pressures. In fact, the BPS budget increased 25% in the past six years. With an annual budget over $1 billion, BPS spends more per pupil than any of the 100 largest school districts in America.
Teachers unions have provided 99% of the funds for the campaign against Question 2. Rather than doing what’s best for kids, they are motivated by self-interested adult-focused policies that protect a status quo that is failing to serve too many children. Public charter schools prove what’s possible academically with low income and minority children.
A recent Brookings Institution report underscores this point. It said “charter schools in the urban areas of Massachusetts have large, positive effects on educational outcomes. The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students, and children who enter charters with low test scores.”
Public charter schools in Massachusetts are held accountable for students’ academic achievement in ways traditional district schools are not. If a charter school does a poor job educating students, the state shuts it down – as it should. In contrast, the state can’t force local school committees to close chronically underperforming district schools that are robbing kids of a quality education – a particularly acute problem in cities. Too often the schools carry on, generation after generation, providing a poor quality education.
No wonder tens of thousands of Massachusetts students are on waiting lists for high-performing public charter schools, including 12,000 in Boston alone. Parents desperately want better schools for their children, yet the existing cap on charter schools is blocking the establishment of more great schools.
We hear how Massachusetts has the best schools in the nation. True enough, yet this bragging masks a problem: the large, persistent achievement gaps our state has failed to close for children of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Massachusetts has the third largest achievement gap based on family income in the nation, and it is growing larger. In contrast, public charter schools narrow these stubborn gaps, especially for urban low income and minority children.
Created by liberal Democrats in the state legislature in 1993 to give parents better educational choices, charter schools are now a source of controversy within the Democratic Party as two key constituencies are on opposites sides. While teachers unions oppose charters, minority voters overwhelmingly support their expansion. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Deval Patrick, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, two other House Education Committee Chairs, Patricia Haddad and Alice Peisch, and many other Democrats support children’s access to high quality charter schools.
I’ve devoted much of my career to improving district schools. Ideally, 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 and advances equity, which fulfills our moral obligation to meet their educational needs.
Marty Walz, a Democrat, served as State Representative for the 8th Suffolk District from 2005-2013. Walz currently serves as Chair of the advisory board for Democrats for Education Reform-Massachusetts.