Peisch: Charters are working for children who need them most

This op-ed originally appeared in the MetroWest Daily News.

On November 8, voters across Massachusetts will head to the polls to decide whether to raise the cap on charter school enrollment. Question 2 would allow the state to approve up to 12 new charters a year across the state with a priority to site these schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts. It is ironic that the outcome of a vote that will decide the fate of poor communities’ access to more high quality educational opportunities may very well be decided by voters in high–performing suburban school districts that will not be affected by a cap lift.

Like the overwhelming majority of public school districts in the state, the suburban communities that I represent are not even close to the statutory cap and there is little to no demand for charter schools there. In the same way raising the credit limit on a credit card has no impact on the spending of someone who never spends close to his/her credit limit, raising the cap has no impact on districts that are far below the cap. Lifting the cap, however, will have a positive impact on districts that are at or near the cap. For children in these communities, where the overwhelming majority of the 32,000 currently on waiting lists reside, the stakes could not be higher.

Let me be very clear. I am a strong supporter of high quality district public schools for all children and started in the Legislature as a charter school opponent. However, my legislative colleagues who represent poorly performing urban districts changed my perspective and as the House Chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, I have seen firsthand the ways in which charter schools have not only provided educational opportunities for those who otherwise would not have such opportunities, but also have demonstrated to traditional districts that the low-income children that had been failing in district schools could perform at high levels given the chance.

I believe that charter schools are just one of the many tools that are needed to close the gap between students in our high performing suburban schools and those in our low performing urban systems.

Legislation that I helped to craft with input from all stakeholders including school committees, superintendents and teachers unions that would have given district schools significantly more tools to improve educational outcomes and allowed a modest expansion of charters passed in the House in 2014. However, the same interests that are now opposing Question 2 successfully pressured the state Senate to reject the compromise bill.

The argument of those opposed to charters that they are motivated by a concern for all children rings hollow to me. These groups were so opposed to even a moderate, incremental charter expansion that they killed common-sense legislation that would have benefitted public school districts across the state. Had that legislation passed, we would not be in this divisive ballot campaign today.

Massachusetts charter schools, the best in the nation, have demonstrably closed the achievement gap in low-income, minority neighborhoods. A recent study from the Brookings Institute, a liberal think-tank, found that “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.”

Still, while urban parents are in dire need of more options, Question 2 opponents have been cynically urging suburban parents to limit them. What suburban parents are being asked to do is deny parents in Boston, Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence and other low-income, low-performing districts the same access to high quality opportunities they now enjoy.

I do not believe that charter schools are the only answer, but they can be part of a comprehensive public education system that improves outcomes for all students. Even if the cap is lifted, we will still need to work together toward system-wide improvements. The goal of ensuring that every child in the Commonwealth has access to a high quality public school will not be achieved in November, but should this referendum pass, it would be a step in the right direction and one on which the Legislature will build moving forward.

I ask you to join me in voting “Yes” on Question 2 so that all children will have the opportunity to access high quality public education regardless of where they live or what their parents’ income.

Rep. Alice H. Peisch serves the 14th Norfolk District, which includes Wellesley, Weston and Wayland, and is House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education.