Myths and Realities of MA’s Public Charter Schools

Policy leaders from across the United States are trying to reproduce the proven success of Boston’s public charter schools. But you wouldn’t know that from the charter debates currently happening in the Commonwealth, where opponents are repeating the same tired, unsupported criticisms. They argue charters achieve their high performance through unsavory means, like taking money from public schools, failing to serve all kids, or somehow forcing kids out.

The sad reality is that no matter how good charter schools are— no matter how much good they do for students that need them most— there will always be a political struggle replete with undue criticism. But now with new data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, we can bust some myths about Boston’s public charter schools..

Myth #1: Charters bump up their test scores by failing to serve students with special needs.

According to this argument, public charters dump special needs kids back into district schools, widening the disparity in test scores to their benefit. But the best-performing public charters actually serve greater proportions of special needs students than the average BPS school, and they serve greater proportions of special needs kids than BPS’ top performers.

The average BPS district school has a special needs population of 19.5% of the total student body

(The state average is 17%). But all five of BPS’ Level 1 schools come in below that figure. The three top BPS performers (Boston Latin, Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant) have rigorous entrance exams and special needs populations ranging between 1.1% and 3.1% of their student bodies.

The top-performing Level 1 public charter schools, by contrast, serve special needs populations close to or greater than the BPS district average. All six public charter high schools serve special needs populations greater than 16%, and two of Boston’s Level 1 charters (Codman Academy and City on a Hill) have special needs populations of 25.3% and 22.4%, well over the BPS average.

Myth #2: Charters drive up performance by booting out students that don’t get good test scores.

This hypothesis assumes that public charter stability is low (students that begin the school year in a Boston public charter don’t end the year there) and that attrition is high (students who end a year at a charter school don’t return to that school the next year). 

By John Griffin, DFER-MA Policy Fellow