Boston Globe: In Salem, a balanced approach to charter schools

This article by Yvonne Abraham originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

SALEM — People have very strong feelings about Question 2 — even in suburban districts where it will have no impact.

The debate has been loud and polarizing, making it harder to think clearly about the pros and cons of the question that would lift the cap on charter schools, allowing the state to OK up to 12 new ones a year in districts that need them most.

Though most districts have not hit their charter caps, and won’t be affected by Question 2, about 180 school committees have voted to oppose the ballot measure.

Thanks in large part to Mayor Kim Driscoll, Salem’s isn’t one of them. Instead, after some debate, the school committee settled on a resolution both affirming the value of charters and calling for fixes to the problems they raise.

When Salem was designated as a severely struggling Level 4 district by the state a few years ago, “it felt like a punch in the gut,” Driscoll said. One elementary school, the Bentley, dropped into the lowest-performing category, but the whole district needed help. Her school department has been aggressive about innovating and intolerant of the status quo. The Bentley eventually became an in-district charter school. Turnaround status, more state funding, and community partnerships brought longer days, more enrichment, and better community connections through a program where teachers visit kids at home. On a recent morning, the school hummed with engaged students and energetic teachers.

This year, the Bentley shot from Level 4 to Level 1 status. The whole district is on the upswing, even as 51 percent of fifth-grade parents across the city still apply to Salem Academy, a high performing charter school outside the district. Competition has worked as reformers hoped, pushing district schools to do better.

“We desire to build unity in our community and not be divided by a statewide ballot question,” the resolution read, in part.

When Salem was designated as a severely struggling Level 4 district by the state a few years ago, “it felt like a punch in the gut,” Driscoll said. One elementary school, the Bentley, dropped into the lowest-performing category, but the whole district needed help. Her school department has been aggressive about innovating and intolerant of the status quo. The Bentley eventually became an in-district charter school. Turnaround status, more state funding, and community partnerships brought longer days, more enrichment, and better community connections through a program where teachers visit kids at home. On a recent morning, the school hummed with engaged students and energetic teachers.

This year, the Bentley shot from Level 4 to Level 1 status. The whole district is on the upswing, even as 51 percent of fifth-grade parents across the city still apply to Salem Academy, a high performing charter school outside the district. Competition has worked as reformers hoped, pushing district schools to do better.

“It has forced us to look at what we’re doing and how can we do it better,” Driscoll said. “It’s not hostile — maybe because we’re eight square miles and we all know each other.”

Elsewhere, Question 2 opponents have convinced their neighbors that charter schools educate somebody else’s kids. They speak as if charters aren’t public, even though they are; that they’re not accountable, when they’re more closely monitored by the state than district schools; that they’re as shady as bad charters in other states, when in fact ours are among the best charters in the country. Because they have to meet such a high bar, only a few are approved each year, and that wouldn’t change after a cap lift.

But Salem’s experience also demonstrates some of the problems with charters: Though she is a fan of Salem Academy, Driscoll would like its students to more closely mirror the makeup of the district, and she is unhappy that the state has failed to fully fund the reimbursements the district gets when students first leave for charters. Driscoll said she has had to cut other services to make up for shortfalls. That said, it’s important to realize that Salem, like many districts, also loses funding when kids go to the regional vocational high school and to open enrollment districts like Beverly, but it doesn’t get reimbursed for that.

There are more than 30,000 kids on waiting lists to get into charters statewide. Many of them are poor, black and Hispanic. While last week’s MassINC poll found a majority of all voters oppose Question 2, 54 percent of minority voters support it. A no vote tells parents who want to choose charters to wait and see if their schools improve. Opponents, with the teachers unions in the vanguard, are critical of the charters and worried about losing more funding. They see the long waiting lists for charter seats as the lesser of two evils.

Driscoll won’t choose between them.

“It has caused hostility within communities, between unions who feel they need to defend themselves, and people who want choice, who feel slighted,” she said. “It’s not a good environment. I don’t want to be part of that.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.