Kerr: Real Democrats support charter schools

This op-ed originally appeared on CommonWealth

WITH JUST DAYS before America selects a successor to President Obama, a longstanding kerfuffle has broken into the open on his longstanding, crystal clear opposition to artificial caps on public charter schools.

An aggressive form of this denial came to the forefront of Massachusetts politics this summer when, after the Democratic State Committee rushed a vote without discussion oppose ballot Question 2 to expand charter school access, the state Senate president’s communications director tweeted: “This just in: Democrats in Massachusetts turn out to be real Democrats after all, vote to oppose increasing charter schools.”

At Democrats for Education Reform, we missed the memo about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton not being “real Democrats.”

To dispel any doubts that charter schools have Democratic support, you need only look to the bench of national Democratic leaders who are champions of high-quality public charter schools. The first major backer of charter schools was none other than Al Shanker, the progressive American Federation of Teachers union leader who himself argued for autonomy, statewide accountability, competition, and no arbitrary caps on growth in charter schooling. The first charter school law in the country, in Minnesota, was spearheaded by a Democratic state senator. As the charter movement grew nationally, it attracted the support of such progressive icons as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota; former Democratic National Committee chair and Vermont governor Howard Dean; Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York; Congressman George Miller of California; Martin Luther King III; and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

The first national charter school law was advanced by Democratic President Bill Clinton. That law, the federal Charter School Program of 1994, jumpstarted a Democratic trend of replicating high-quality charter schools. By the time Clinton left office, 1,700 charter schools were open in 36 states. In a 2012 speech delivered to the public charter network KIPP, Clinton explained why he supports the spirit of innovation behind the charter school model: “Innovation is not just coming up with a new idea, innovation is rapidly replicating excellence,” he said. That kind of excellence is exactly why Clinton said, in the same speech, “I wish there were 10 times or 100 times as many KIPP schools because you have proved that you can replicate excellence.”

 

President Obama took up Clinton’s mantle, making the expansion of high-quality charter school seats part of his enduring legacy. In 2008, Obama promised to double funding for high-quality, public charter schools, and he has made good on that promise, especially in Massachusetts. In 2010, Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grant program tied increased education funding to targeted reform measures like increased district accountability and expansion of high-quality charter seats. “I called for a doubling of our investment in charter schools,” Obama said, “so that students and parents have choices within the public school system, because I believe in public schools.”

The legislation that Massachusetts passed to secure that grant doubled the cap on charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts, Nationally, Obama has shown his support for public charter schools by proclaiming National Charter School Week and has called himself a “big proponent of charter schools.” His first secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has endorsed Question 2 in Massachusetts, as has his current Secretary of Education John King – a founder of Roxbury Prep Charter School – who said that “any arbitrary cap on the growth of high performing charters is a mistake.”

On November 8, Hillary Clinton will be elected the next pro-charter school president. Secretary Clinton has spent her whole career as a progressive education reformer. While working for the Children’s Defense Fund, she came to New Bedford to make sure all children had access to a quality education. She engineered standards-based accountability in Arkansas when she was first lady there, and she was instrumental in passing Bill Clinton’s charter school law when he was president. Symbolically, the videoannouncing her candidacy for president featured a woman who was moving out of her neighborhood just so her daughter could “belong to a better school.” In July, Clinton was booed at a National Education Association convention for saying “whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working […] and share it with schools across America.”

In this campaign, some people initially doubted where Secretary Clinton would land on charter schools. That’s understandable given the politics around charters in this election season. But Clinton has lately been showing her reformer roots. When directly asked whether states should impose uniform caps on charter schools, Secretary Clinton responded that states should develop measures to keep charter schools accountable, but ultimately “allow successful public charter schools to add new campuses or grade levels.”

Democrats have also led the charter school movement here in Massachusetts. The state’s first charter school law, passed in 1993, was championed by Senate education committee chair (and later Senate president) Tom Birmingham and House education committee chair Mark Roosevelt, both liberal Democrats who have since endorsed Question 2. “Voters,” say Birmingham and Roosevelt, “shouldn’t block access to great charter schools for parents who desperately seek an alternative to what their district offers.”

Then-state Sen. Stephen Lynch, now a Democratic congressman, was the lead sponsor on the 1997 bill to lift the Massachusetts cap for the first time. Another cap lift, in 2010, was passed when President Obama launched the federal Race to the Top program. Democrats in both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly supported the resulting legislation to double the charter school cap. The lead author of that bill, Democratic State Rep. Marty Walz, went on to lead the Massachusetts chapter of Planned Parenthood and is now the chair of the DFER Massachusetts advisory council.

Even as the issue has become more contentious in Massachusetts politics, courageous Democrats who understand the facts remain strongly in favor of charter expansion. The current House chair of the education committee, Alice Peisch, and her two predecessors, Walz and Pat Haddad, all support lifting the cap on charter schools despite starting their careers as charter school opponents.

 

As these lawmakers’ evolution shows, even charter school opponents become supporters when they spend time with the data and become deeply acquainted with facts, as education committee chairs must. Walz and then-Democratic state Sen. Robert O’Leary, who together chaired the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education during the passage of Massachusetts’ 2010 Education Reform Act, wrote with regards to a 2015 attempt to lift the cap legislatively that Massachusetts should “build on what works” by lifting the cap on public charter schools.

Congressman Lynch, a labor Democrat and former ironworker union president, has seen first-hand the positive impact of charter schooling through his work at Boston Collegiate Charter School, a high-performing charter school in Dorchester that he-cofounded. Lynch calls himself “very much pro-charter school.” On his support for Question 2, he said “I certainly am very, very supportive of [public charter schools] and I support expanding the cap.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo is another courageous Democrat willing to counter powerful special interests in favor of what’s right, explaining, “I decided to do what I feel is best for students. Whatever the political ramifications may be, I think it’s the right thing to do.” US Education Secretary John King and former US senator Mo Cowan, both of whom played leadership roles in the Massachusetts charter school sector, also both support Question 2. In a recent op-ed, Cowan wrote that lifting the cap on public charter schools “currently is our best option to empower more families to choose the right public education for their children and for the rest of us to support innovation in education, the foundation upon which every innovative idea is built.”

Support for charter schools is also strong among the next generation of Democratic leaders, especially in cities and communities of color. Boston City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Josh Zakim refused to endorse a Boston City Council resolution against Question 2, and Campbell has since come out strongly for the charter cap lift, making the case that her constituents want better schools.

The soon-to-be only women of color in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Juana Matias of Lawrence and Chynah Tyler of Roxbury, ran as unabashed charter supporters and have both endorsed Question 2. When she is elected on November 8, Tyler will be the first charter school alumna to serve in the Massachusetts House. Her principal at Roxbury Prep was John King, President Obama’s education secretary.

The notion that Massachusetts Democrats don’t support charter expansion is a myth. Democrats who care about good government, want quality education for all students, and know the facts understand that charter schools must be part of the solution.

At Democrats for Education Reform, we support charter schools in Massachusetts because they are proven to provide a quality education to students who have too often been left behind by traditional schools. As progressive education reformers, we want every child have access to a quality district school – and we will fight to make district schools better no matter what happens with Question 2.

Right now, though, there are simply too many children in chronically underperforming district schools. Every student currently on a charter school waitlist has just one chance at a K-12 education – they cannot wait decades for adults to solve adult problems and fix the district schools. For these children, Massachusetts charter schools represent the opportunity for a better future.

If we as progressives believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that it does. This means identify areas where the status quo is insufficient, try new solutions, measure the impact of those solutions, and replicate what works. It is a data-driven process that must be separated from mere ideology. As progressives, we employ this process to bend our social structures toward justice. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s first secretary of education, put it best when he said, “Our policies have to be based on evidence and based on facts. Secondly, we have to be the party that fights for those who have a harder time fighting for themselves.”

This process is mostly common sense, but in practice it is often difficult to achieve. Any status quo exists because people with power have benefited from it, whether consciously or not. It takes courage to admit that such a status quo is broken, failing the members of our society who have most often been left behind. And it takes even more courage to work to change that status quo. But that’s what being a progressive and a Democrat should be all about. You identify the problem, you use data to find a solution that works, and once you’ve found that solution, you replicate it.

The mechanism by which charter schools are funded is also fundamentally progressive. In Massachusetts, the money follows the child. This means simply that schools receive funding for the number of students they educate. When charter schools do well by their students, demand increases and more students want to attend. There is no “siphoning” or “draining” of money from public schools because (1) charter schools arepublic schools, and (2) the money always follows the child.

In terms of results, the academic consensus is clear that Massachusetts’s urban charter schools do a better job of educating their students than do traditional districts. A succession of academic studies from nonpartisan, independent institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and the left-leaning Brookings Institution have consistently verified the substantial positive impact of Massachusetts charter schools.

In the most recent Brookings Institution study, respected education researchers Sarah Cohodes and Susan M. Dynarski wrote, “One year in a Boston charter […] erases roughly a third of the racial achievement gap.” They conclude that “[t]here is a deep well of rigorous, relevant research on the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts. In fact, it is hard to think of an education policy for which the evidence is more clear.”

History, conviction, and data make the Democratic case for charter school expansion. As progressive Democrats, we have always supported the civil rights of disempowered groups over the simple and classically conservative ideal of local control, which has so often been used to disempower those very same people. Democrats accordingly played leading roles in the development and implementation of charter schools here. There is room for ideological disagreement within the Democratic Party, but no one can seriously claim that Massachusetts charter schools don’t work, or that that Democrats have not supported them.

Believing that government can make a difference in people’s lives comes along with a responsibility to measure that impact and do more of what works. Charter schools work in Massachusetts, and their carefully measured impact embodies Democratic values. That much is clear. President Obama’s belief is similarly clear. He has called on states to lift charter caps and stated that such caps are “not good for our children, our economy, or our country.”

That’s why we at Democrats for Education Reform are “Yes on 2.” We hope you will join us in advancing our state’s—and, yes, Barack Obama’s – education legacy by voting “Yes,” too.

Liam Kerr is Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

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David Leonhardt: Schools That Work

This op-ed originally appeared in The New York Times

By: David Leonhardt

BOSTON — Alanna Clark still remembers the stress of third-grade reading time. When her class read books together aloud, Alanna would often become confused. She didn’t understand how her classmates could answer the teacher’s questions about the book so quickly. As they did, Alanna was still just trying to take in the words.

“It was frustrating, because I used to think, maybe I’m reading the wrong part,” she said. “But I wasn’t.”

Alanna had a reading disability, and she was falling behind. Her mother repeatedly asked the school for help, without success — and then began to fear that a pattern was repeating itself. Alanna’s sister, who was 12 years older, had also struggled in school. But schools kept promoting her, until she eventually made it to community college, where, unprepared, she flunked.

With this fear as a spur, Alanna’s mother entered her into the long-shot lotteries that allow Boston children to attend schools outside their neighborhood. Alanna won one of them, and today is a poised, soft-spoken 10th grader at a charter school called Match, housed in an old auto-parts store on Commonwealth Avenue.

Charter schools — public schools that operate outside the normal system — have become a quarrelsome subject, of course, alternately hailed as saviors and criticized as an overrated fad. Away from the fights, however, social scientists have quietly spent years analyzing the outcomes of students who attend charter schools.

The findings are stark. And while they occasionally pop up in media coverage and political debates about charter schools, they do not get nearly enough attention. The studies should be at the center of any discussion of educational reform, because they offer by far the clearest evidence about which parts of it are working and which are not.

The briefest summary is this: Many charter schools fail to live up to their promise, but one type has repeatedly shown impressive results.

Hannah Larkin, the principal at Match, refers to such schools as “high expectations, high support” schools. They devote more of their resources to classroom teaching and less to almost everything else. They keep students in class for more hours. They set high standards for students and try to instill confidence in them. They focus on giving teachers feedback about their craft and helping them get better.

“My mother has been teaching forever. My father has been teaching for 10 years,” Christopher Perez, a physics teacher at Match, told me. “They don’t get observed. I get observed every week and have a meeting about it every week.”

While visiting Match, I was struck that teachers hardly seemed to notice when I ducked into their rooms, midclass, to watch them. They are obviously used to having observers. They welcome it, as a way to improve.

The latest batch of evidence about this approach is among the most rigorous. Professors at M.I.T., Columbia, Michigan and Berkeley have tracked thousands of charter-school applicants, through high school and beyond, in Boston, where most charters fit the “high expectations, high support” model.

Crucially, the researchers took several steps to make sure the findings were real. They compared lottery winners with losers, controlling for the fact that families who applied for the lotteries were different from families who didn’t. They also counted as charter students all those who enrolled, including any who later left.

When you talk to the professors about their findings, you hear a degree of excitement that’s uncommon for academic researchers. “Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance — class sizes, tracking, new buildings — these schools are producing spectacular gains,” said Joshua Angrist, an M.I.T. professor.

Students who go to Boston’s charter schools learn reading and math better and faster than students elsewhere. They are more likely to take A.P. tests and to do well on them. Their SAT scores are higher than for similar students elsewhere — an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT. Many more students attend a four-year college, suggesting that the benefits don’t disappear over time.

The gains are large enough that some of Boston’s charters, despite enrolling mostly lower-income students, have test scores that resemble those of upper-middle-class public schools. The seventh graders at the Brooke Charter schools in East Boston and Roslindale fare as well on a state math test as students at the prestigious Boston Latin school, the country’s oldest public school and a school with an admissions exam.

A frequent criticism of charters is that they skim off the best students, but that’s not the case in Boston. Many groups that struggle academically — boys, African-Americans, Latinos, special-education students like Alanna — are among the biggest beneficiaries. On average, notes Parag Pathak, also of M.I.T., Boston’s charters eliminate between one-third and one-half of the white-black test-score gap in a single year.

When I spoke with Alanna, she told me she aspired to go to Johns Hopkins and become a surgeon. “Since people didn’t want to help me,” she said, “I want to help others.”

Perhaps the most important thing about the Boston study, however, is that it fits a larger trend. Again and again, analyses of “high expectations, high support” schools — in FloridaDenverNew OrleansNew Yorkeven Newark, despite other charter-school disappointments there — have come to similar conclusions.

So why isn’t there a national consensus to create more of these schools?

Because the politics of education are messy.

First, no school can cure poverty on its own. At Match, for example, only about 55 percent of students go on to graduate from a four-year college. That’s much higher than at most public schools, but I’ll confess I still find it a bit disappointing because it means some charter graduates still struggle. And when we journalists write about schools (or most anything else), we often emphasize the negative. We have paid more attention to controversies — like harsh suspension policies in some places — than to an overwhelming pattern of success.

Second, many people understandably worry that charters harm children who attend the rest of the public-school system. But there is good news here, too. Two recent analyses of multiple studies concluded that charters do not hurt outcomes at other schools — and may even help improve them, by creating competition.

Finally, no matter how successful charters may be, they undeniably make life uncomfortable for some people at traditional schools.

The best place to see this dynamic right now happens to be here in Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the state will vote on whether to allow charters to expand. Doing so would have enormous benefits: It would improve the lives of some of the 30,000 children who have lost lotteries and are now on waiting lists.

But it would also shrink traditional public schools, and many school boards and teachers unions around the state are fighting the ballot initiative. Elizabeth Warren, the state’s senior senator, opposes it, too. The critics argue that Massachusetts should instead focus on improving traditional public schools.

For anyone who sees some merit on both sides, I’d encourage listening to Susan Dynarski, one of the researchers who conducted the Boston study.

A University of Michigan professor (and Times contributor), Dynarski is a proudly progressive former union organizer. She told me that she had agonized over being on the opposite side of an issue as some of her friends and usual allies.

She wrote a Facebook post about why she hoped Massachusetts voters would approve the expansion. In the post, she acknowledged that some teachers would not want to work in charter schools. And if schools’ main function were to provide good jobs for adults, an expansion of charters might not make sense. Obviously, however, schools have another, larger mission.

“The gains to children in Massachusetts charters are enormous. They are larger than any I have seen in my career,” Dynarski wrote. “To me, it is immoral to deny children a better education because charters don’t meet some voters’ ideal of what a public school should be. Children don’t live in the long term. They need us to deliver now.”

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Henderson: The case for the charter school question

This op-ed originally appeared in the MetroWest Daily News

“[Education] is the most important function of state and local governments… It is doubtful that any child can be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity… is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school desegregation case in which my father was the named plaintiff, is usually remembered for striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal” schools. But I believe this is the excerpt that captures the ruling’s true meaning.

Charter public schools in Boston and across Massachusetts are making Brown’s equal opportunity mandate a reality. They are providing genuine educational opportunity that creates economic options.

They are also proving that excellence is possible in public schools regardless of demographics. Boston and Massachusetts charter schools are a national model and they have certainly earned the support of state voters, who will go to the polls in November to determine if more charters should be allowed to open in the commonwealth’s lowest-performing school districts.

A 2015 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), found that academic growth among Boston charter school students is more than four times that of their traditional public school peers in English and more than six times greater in math. The charter school students outperform their district school counterparts across every category, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, English language learners, low-income and special education students. A 2013 CREDO report found that Boston charter schools were doing more to narrow the race and poverty-based achievement gap than any other group of schools in the country.

The success that Boston and Massachusetts charter schools have had educating disadvantaged students gives those children and their families a voice. Traditional public school administrators should be asking charter leaders how they, too, can transform the lives of those who were thought to be left behind. Instead, too many look for ways to find fault with another form of public education that is proving to be successful.

I’m particularly saddened by the suggestions of area civil rights organizations that charter schools aren’t succeeding and siphon resources from the larger system. These are all public schools, and what the criticism amounts to is scapegoating children and families who believe charters represent their best option.

This approach reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how society functions; a lack of understanding that all of us pay the price for those who fail. There is no us against them, there is only us.

Brown stands for the fact that there should be no second-class citizens, but our education system today ensures that second-class citizens walk among us; people who can’t read, can’t write or do math, and lack the skills needed to be the kinds of citizens Horace Mann envisioned when he pioneered the concept of public education.

Education is hard work; it is not for the faint of heart. To be a good educator takes every ounce of your being. But as Horace Mann said, education is the great equalizer of the condition of individuals; the balance wheel of social machinery. Without it there would be no doctors, no lawyers, no scientists or architects.

The performance of Boston and Massachusetts charter schools serves as a reminder that we know how to educate children; what we sometimes lack is the political will to do it. Massachusetts voters will have the opportunity to stiffen the backbones of their elected leaders in November by approving a ballot initiative that would allow more high-performing charters in the places that need them the most.

Cheryl Brown Henderson is president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research. Her father, the Rev. Oliver L. Brown, was a lead plaintiff in Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case.

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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.

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Ed Secretary John King calls charter caps "a mistake"

During a luncheon speech at the National Press Club, Education Secretary John King talked about the role played by U.S. schools to prepare students for civic engagement, as well as the Obama administration’s legacy on education policy. President Obama's Secretary of Education, John King, Jr., calls arbitrary caps on charter schools "a mistake". King later stated he was talking directly about the ballot question in Massachusetts.

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Eagle-Tribune: Yes on charter schools

This editorial originally appeared in The Eagle-Tribune

In addition to the presidential and local elections, Massachusetts voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on several ballot questions that will directly affect their daily lives.

Question 2 asks voters to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. If approved, the measure would allow Massachusetts to add as many as a dozen charter schools a year, with the focus being on communities with low-performing schools.

We urge a yes vote. Massachusetts has some of the best charter schools in the nation, many of them situated here in the Merrimack Valley and on the North Shore. At their best, they drive innovation at traditional schools and give worried parents another option when they feel local districts are failing their children. Multiple studies have shown Massachusetts charter school students make real gains in math and reading.

One need only look to Salem, Mass., for an example of how charters and traditional public schools can co-exist. The Salem Academy Charter School, is a strong, innovative school with a track record of success. Meanwhile, Salem's traditional schools, once facing a state takeover, are now ranked "Level 1," in large part because of the success of the Bentley Elementary School, an in-district charter where educators are encouraged to try new approaches.

Supporters of traditional schools argue that districts lose funding to charters. But in a report released last month, the highly respected Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation noted that charters receive about 4 percent of the roughly $12.7 billion the state spends on education — and educate about 4 percent of the state's children. The funding mechanism is similar to that used for school choice students, or those who attend regional schools like Essex Tech.

There are more than 30,000 children on a waiting list for a charter school in Massachusetts. It is time they had an opportunity to receive the education their parents wish for them.

 

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Boston Globe: Vote ‘yes’ on Question 2

This editorial originally appeared in The Boston Globe

WHEN EXPERIMENTS SUCCEED, it makes sense to replicate them. Voters have the chance to continue a successful strategy in public education by approving Question 2, which would allow the state to continue expanding public charter schools in the communities that need them most, including Boston.

If passed, the proposal would create new opportunities for the 32,000 students, predominantly black and Latino, who are now languishing on waiting lists hoping for a spot at a charter school — public schools overseen by the state rather than local districts. Under the law, the state could approve 12 new charter schools per year, making a priority of underperforming districts.

Meanwhile, in the great majority of the Commonwealth’s towns — places with thriving traditional school districts — the referendum would have no impact, because parents there are mostly happy with their schools.

The ballot question has provoked a great deal of confusion, much of it generated by opponents seeking to scare and mislead voters about the fiscal consequences of charter schools. But more than 20 years of experience with charters in Massachusetts suggest those fears are overblown. On the contrary, the history of charter schools in the Commonwealth shows they are working as intended, by providing the kind of choices for poor urban parents that wealthier suburban families simply take for granted.

CHARTER SCHOOLS IN Massachusetts date to 1993, the same year that the state’s highest court found that public education was failing generations of students in low-income communities. Lawmakers then confronted what had been obvious for years: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, birthplace of American public education, had degenerated into a two-tiered public education system. 

Its top suburban districts, places like Newton and Wellesley, offered some of the best education available anywhere. But they were largely inaccessible to poor families, thanks to the state’s longstanding shortage of affordable housing in the suburbs.

Meanwhile, public school districts with large minority populations — Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and other urban districts — failed to adequately educate far too many of their students.

As part of that year’s reforms, lawmakers gave consideration to policies to expand school choice for parents, like the mandatory school-choice program that would have allowed students to attend any public school in the state free of charge. Ultimately, though, the Legislature resorted to a new instrument to give parents choices while preserving public control: charter schools. The state invited nonprofits to apply to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to run charter schools, and parents could choose to enroll their children, the same way wealthier parents can elect to move or send their children to a private school. The state reserved the right to shut down charters that underperformed and put a cap on the number allowed in each community and in the state overall.

In addition to providing choices for parents, the state also wanted charters to serve as laboratories for innovative educational approaches. The law gave leeway to experiment with longer schools days, longer school years, and more flexibility in staffing and hiring.

To pay for the new charter schools, the Legislature used the same common-sense funding principle used for vocational schools: The money follows the student. Since the districts no longer had responsibility for educating students enrolled in charter schools, they no longer received the funding associated with that student (they do get a limited reimbursement from the state to ease the transition). That’s an inconvenience for districts, but responding to variations in enrollment numbers — from families moving, shifting demographics, enrolling in regional schools, and many other causes — has always been part of the challenge of managing any school district.

The first charter opened its doors in August 1995.

IN THE YEARS since then, the state’s system for charters has undergone a thorough test, and by any measure it has passed. There are now 78 charter schools in the Commonwealth, and no more seats available in many urban areas. Statewide, charters serve a higher share of low-income, African-American, and Hispanic students (94 percent) than the state as a whole (63 percent). As intended, the schools have pioneered new educational approaches, proving the value of longer school days.

Studies have shown that charters in Massachusetts are producing verifiably better academic results than district schools. For instance, a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in Boston found that kids in 83 percent of charters in the city significantly outperform their traditional public school peers in reading and math. Students in all Massachusetts charter schools gain the equivalent of 36 more days of learning per year in reading and 65 more days of learning in math. A Harvard University report demonstrates that childrenin Chelsea, Salem, Lynn, Boston, Everett, and Holyoke perform better in test scores if they attend a charter school than do their peers at a traditional public school. Another MIT study found that charter school attendance also increases SAT scores sharply, especially in math. And, contrary to the popular criticism that charter schools pick the “cream of the crop” and don’t serve the same high-needs population as their district counterparts, enrollment of English-Language Learners and students with disabilities in Massachusetts charter schools has been increasing in the last few years.

At the same time, early fears about charters have been put to rest. One concern was that private operators would sneak in, circumventing a ban by forming nonprofit arms. DESE prevented that from happening; all but one of these for-profit operators has pulled out of the state.

Nor have the schools overrun the suburbs, where a recurring fear has been that operators would apply to run “boutique charters” that would compete with high-performing district schools. Those communities are still well under their local caps. The last nonurban charter was granted in 2006 in Hadley. That’s because most suburban parents are happy with their district schools. And more likely than not, suburban kids have access to more out-of-school support, from parents or tutors. Boston alone has more than 20 charter schools, and Springfield, Lawrence, Lowell, and New Bedford account for much of the rest.

 

MEANWHILE, OVER THE last two decades, the charter movement has faced some headwinds. Other states have allowed for-profit companies to start charters, with sometimes lax oversight. Those out-of-state schools have unfairly tainted charters.

This election season, charters also face a specious campaign arguing they are not really public schools, because they don’t answer to local school committees, and that they “drain” resources from districts. These are semantic tricks. Charters are public schools — with independent boards — and ultimately answer to state officials. In fact, 15 charters have closed through either voluntary charter surrender or revocation by the state.

Nor do charters drain money — because the money doesn’t belong to the schools in the first place. When a student is enrolled in a charter school, the money spent by the district to educate that child follows him or her to the charter — the same as if a family moved, say, from Boston to Newton and the student began attending the Newton public schools. Nobody would ever accuse parents who can afford that move of “draining” the Boston schools. Charter parents shouldn’t be held to a double standard.

A related criticism holds charters responsible for the problem they were designed to fix — the existence of a two-tiered education system. This line of argument holds that the state should focus on improving all schools in cities, rather than allowing charters that serve only a few. Putting aside the fact that charters would be happy to serve more students — in fact, that’s the point of Question 2 — it’s a fallacy to believe that improving districts and opening more charters are mutually exclusive goals.

To the contrary, urban charters — and the possibility of more charters if Question 2 passes — should be a spur for reformers in school districts. If school districts in Boston, Springfield, and other urban areas can provide better educational options, the demand for charters will evaporate. And that would be the best possible outcome from the question’s passage: It will pressure public school districts in cities to offer longer school days and win other long-needed reforms.

 

FOR THE GREAT majority of voters in Massachusetts, the outcome of Question 2 will have no impact on their schools and their children. Since 1993, the strongest public schools in the state have become even stronger, and now rank among the very best in the world. Nothing in the charter-expansion law would change what already works in Massachusetts.

But a goal of an equal, quality education for all continues to elude Massachusetts public education. The families affected are those who don’t live in the suburbs, don’t have the resources to shop for the best school district, and haven’t been lucky enough to win the lottery for a seat at the state’s existing charter schools. Charter schools exist because all parents deserve the same thing for their children: enough choices to ensure their kids get a quality education.

Massachusetts has been a leader in public education for centuries; the commitment to cherish education is even written into the state constitution. In that spirit, the Globe endorses “yes” on Question 2, in the hope that it will write the next chapter in one of the Commonwealth’s great success stories.

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Mo Cowan: A vote for students

This op-ed originally appeared in CommonWealth Magazine.

AT THE OUTSET, I make two admissions: I am not a fan of making public policy via ballot initiative and my children currently are enrolled in private, independent schools. I suppose I should make a third admission: I am a Democrat who believes in public education and thinks teachers are the most put upon – and most important – group of professionals almost anywhere.

With that out of the way, let me tell you why I will vote “yes” on Question 2 and support lifting the charter school cap where it is most needed.

I will vote in favor of Question 2 because as a Democrat who believes in public education, thinks teachers are as important today as they ever have been, and who has the privilege of choice for my kids’ education, it currently is our best option to empower more families to choose the right public education for their children and for the rest of us to support innovation in education, the foundation upon which every innovative idea is built.

Political rhetoric has heated the debate, pitting teachers unions against private citizens. When we divide ourselves along such arguments, we lose sight of what is in the best interest of our students—and thus, the future of our state and nation. This is not a political question about picking a side; this is about investing Massachusetts dollars to close the socioeconomic gap and bring innovation into public education.

 

My family is fortunate and we have the choice of sending our kids to the local district schools or, if we are not convinced that this choice is best for our kids, we can choose private, independent schools. This choice was not available to my family and me when I was of school age. Instead, because of our financial circumstances and the absence of any other option, I attended my local district school in rural North Carolina. Like too many traditional district schools, mine was under-resourced and over-crowded.

Thankfully, these schools also were full of many dedicated teachers who did the best they could with the few resources they had. Unfortunately, they did not have time or capacity to give all of the kids all of the attention they deserved.

We have 32,000 students on the waiting list for public charter schools in the state. Of this number, 12,000 students are in Boston. This ballot question would give the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education the ability to approve up to 12 new charter schools or charter school expansions a year, giving these students the public school opportunity they deserve.

As priority would go to the 25 percent of lowest performing school districts in the state and districts with significant charter school waiting lists, this initiative will greatly expand opportunity for economically disadvantaged students. By supporting these efforts, we have the chance to help close the socioeconomic gap at one the most critical stages for youth.

Study after study has shown large learning gains in Boston charter schools for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students, and English language learners in both math and reading. Every child deserves a chance to attend a better school, regardless of his or her background.

President Obama praised charter schools as “incubators of innovation,” something we need to see more of in the public school education system. Massachusetts has been a leader in public education for decades, boosting leading test scores, and college completion and graduation rates.

We can thank our charter schools for contributing to that success and need to further propel these students forward. By bringing innovation into the public school system, we bring high-quality educational options to a greater number of students. Furthermore, we hold ourselves accountable to families, as charter schools must close down if they underperform. In contrast, our public schools have not faced the consequences for underperforming—and we are now facing these consequences ourselves.

Critics will say that charter schools take funding away from traditional public schools but, in reality, the state reimburses traditional public schools for six years after students leave. This is unique to charter schools; districts do not get reimbursed for students who leave for vocational or agricultural schools. We do not rob our public schools of resources when we open charters. And we should not rob tens of thousands of students and families of opportunity by refusing to meet the need and demand for charters where they are most needed.

By investing in our children, we invest in our state, and thus, our future. I support this initiative because I believe in the public school system and I believe in students having a choice. This election, I hope you will join me in voting “yes” for our students.

Mo Cowan, a former US senator representing Massachusetts, is president & CEO of ML Strategies.

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Rep. Moran: Question 2 Priority 1 for Lawrence families

This op-ed originally appeared in The Eagle-Tribune.

It’s said that a great public education is the foundation of opportunity – and this November, voters will have an opportunity of their own: to give real choice and real opportunity to parents in low-performing school districts by expanding access to public charter schools in Massachusetts.

Certainly, Lawrence public schools have made progress since they were put into state receivership a few years ago – as district schools begin to make the difficult climb out of Level 5 or 4 status, according to the latest state data. But progress is uneven – and for 1,607 kids in Lawrence stuck on a wait list for public charters, it isn’t coming quickly enough.

Take a student like Gigi Garcia. It wasn’t that long ago that high school graduation seemed an impossible dream for Gigi. Raised by her grandmother in Puerto Rico, she moved to Lawrence and quickly found herself adrift in the city’s large district schools. “I didn’t care about my classes,” Gigi candidly admits today.

Despite her challenges—including a temporary stay in foster care—it was because she was able to attend a public charter here in Lawrence that she had the opportunity to turn her life around. At Phoenix Charter Academy, Gigi received the support of teachers who constantly checked in to make sure she was succeeding in the classroom and improving with her English. As a result, she not only graduated from high school this spring but also has plans to enroll in a pre-nursing program with the goal of becoming a registered nurse this fall.

Young people like Gigi inspire us because they refuse to give up. But too often, district schools in urban areas give up on them – particularly if they are poor Latinos or African-Americans. Indeed, in Lawrence, where nearly a third of the public school children have limited English skills and nine in 10 are low-income, fewer than half can read at grade level. A third of kids never make it to graduation. That’s the reality that was awaiting Gigi Garcia if she hadn’t made it to Phoenix – and it’s the reality facing many of the 33,000 kids across the Commonwealth waiting for access to a public charter.

How big of a difference can a public charter school make? Well, independent study after independent study has shown that Massachusetts has the very best public charter schools in the country – the result of longer school days and more individualized instruction. Indeed, one study by Stanford’s CREDO institute found that students who attend Massachusetts charters every year gain an additional month and a half of reading learning and two and a half months of math compared to district school students.

Additionally, opening new public charter schools has led to an increase of more than $236 million in state aid for public education over the last five years, including more than $41 million in FY15. Put simply, public charters are not only good for students — they’re good for our education system as a whole.

Impressive results and increased funding are two reasons why I and so many others have been pushing to lift the cap on public charters. And it’s why I’ll be voting Yes on Question 2 this November.

For Massachusetts voters, the choice this fall is clear. The time has come to give more kids like Gigi the chance to attend a great public school — and to give more communities like Lawrence the opportunity to accelerate the progress we are making for all our children.

Frank Moran represents the 17th Essex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

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Top Ten Charter School Myths

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10. Charter teachers can't unionize. 

Yes they can, and some here in Massachusetts have. 

9. Charters are operated by for-profit companies.

Not in Massachusetts. In fact, for-profit charters are illegal under Massachusetts law. 

8. Charters are not public schools. 

Charters are public schools, operated independently from a school district, with taxpayer funds. 

7. Question 2 is supported by “dark money” from Wall Street types who are just interested in lining their own pockets.

Question 2 is supported by a wide range of people. Because Massachusetts charters are non-profit there is no way for donors to Yes on 2 to profit from their growth. One of the donors, for example, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg regularly donates to causes he believes in, such as equality for LGBTQ people, the environment and gun control.

6. Charters pick and choose the best students to increase the school's test scores.

Under state law, Charter schools enroll students through a blind lottery. Anyone can apply and attend. The current problem is that there are not seats for every student who wants one. 

5. Charters drain money from regular public schools.

Funds earmarked for public education follow the student wherever he/she goes to school. If a student leaves a district school to attend a charter, the district receives a reimbursement for six years, which actually means more money is dedicated to public education. 

4. Charters use harsh discipline practices that drive kids away. 

Charters do have high expectations for their school environment, but the data clearly shows students are more likely to remain enrolled in a charter and graduate, than compared to district schools. 

3. Charters create a two-tiered system of public education. 

No one is suggesting there be a two-tiered system, rather charter proponents advocate that families have more choices. 

2. Charters don't accept students with disabilities or students learning English. 

Charters accept all students through a blind lottery.

1. Democrats don't support Charter Schools. 

Incorrect! Some of leading Democrats locally and nationally support charter schools, including: President Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Deval Patrick, the majority of the Democratically controlled Massachusetts legislature. 

 

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