This letter originally appeared in the Boston Globe:
RE “CHARTERS aren’t draining district school funding”: In the battle over Question 2, thousands of voices from current and former charter school students, like me, have been left out. I know without a doubt that the educational and professional opportunities I’ve accessed are due to the foundation set during my middle and high school years at a public charter school in Boston.
My mother’s decision to enroll me in a charter school wasn’t an attempt to drain district school budgets or take resources from other students. It was a decision to put me on the path toward a better future. And because school dollars follow each student, my own education was funded and supported at no one’s expense. Thankfully, your editorial adequately points this out.
Opponents of Question 2 are attempting to pit the opportunities of thousands of kids like me — overwhelmingly students of color, like me — against a status quo that is broken and not serving anyone.
It is frustrating to see school committees across Massachusetts take a position against this ballot question in the name of protecting their budgets. It is equally frustrating that opponents of this measure frame it as being a Republican movement. Democratic support of charter schools, including my own and President Barack Obama’s, is firmly in place. Providing a high-quality public education is the concern of everyone.
Donovan Birch Jr.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal.
As the debate on expanding public charter schools heats up, the role of local business leaders has taken a prominent place in the conversation. While the headlines are currently trading shots about executives supporting the upcoming ballot initiative to lift the cap on charter schools, the longer-term and more substantive debate involves business leaders taking a public service role in charter school governance.
Every single charter authorized by the board of Elementary and Secondary Education is granted to a nonprofit entity, as mandated by law, and more than 90 percent of charter schools are also run by nonprofit organizations. Local business leaders bring experience to local public charter-school governance that is badly needed. The composition of these boards has come under scrutiny, in a report from Brown University and again in the recent debate between Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson and former state Rep. Marty Walz.
The position of opponents to Question 2 is that the experienced business leaders’ prominent role in governance is a problem. Yet that stance, explicitly in this case and implicitly in others, is a defense of the management and governance of the traditional bureaucracy in public schools.
Jackson and Walz are both Democrats, and a core tenet of our party is a belief that government can run effective organizations that make real positive difference in people’s lives — especially those that need it most. That belief must be paired with a responsibility to ensure that those organizations are actually fulfilling that mission. Boston Public Schools, which spends more per pupil than any other big-city school system in the country, according to Census Bureau data, has proven otherwise for far too long.
The range of management problems at Boston Public Schools is well-documented — from missing performance reviews and lead in the drinking water to a dysfunctional vocational technical high school that is failing students. To attack the governance structure of public charter schools as containing too much business acumen reads almost like a headline from The Onion.
Public goods like K-12 education are clearly not identical to businesses, in both values and in practice. Large urban public school systems in particular are incredibly challenging to run, and clearly more complex to evaluate than any entity where success can be measured by just the bottom line.
But Democrats especially must hold our public investments to high standards in the areas in which all organizations must excel, from potable water to performance reviews. Many high-performing charter schools are doing that and more, and their board leadership should be copied instead of maligned.
Liam Kerr is state director of Democrats for Education Reform.
This originally appeared on Nightside with Dan Rea on WBZ Radio
Perhaps the most intensely debated ballot question here in Massachusetts, Question 2 proposes that the state lift the cap on charter schools, potentially allowing up to twelve additional charter schools to open each year. Proponents say this will offer parents more choice and allow students to escape struggling traditional schools. Critics say that more charter schools will take resources away from traditional public schools that are already operating on a tight budget. Some also worry that there is little to no oversight on charter schools, no financial transparency, and concerns over the types of students being admitted.
Former Massachusetts Representative Marty Walz and American Federation of Teachers President Tom Gosnell join Dan in the NightSide studio to discuss the pros and cons of charter schools and the merits of Question 2.
Part 1 of 3: http://cbsloc.al/2di2mr7
Part 2 of 3: http://cbsloc.al/2di2WFn
Part 3 of 3: http://cbsloc.al/2defQWe
Following today’s Massachusetts primary election, Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts State Director, Liam Kerr, released the following statement:
“We are proud to celebrate the victories of DFER-endorsed candidates Chynah Tyler, Aaron Kanzer, and Juana Matis in today’s primary contest. Between now andNovember 8th, we look forward to helping elect these Democratic education champions to the state legislature. We will be working to ensure these victorious primary candidates and incumbents with Republican opponents will return a reform Democratic majority to the House of Representatives in 2017.
“Chynah Tyler earned her victory tonight by sharing with voters her vision that all children in Boston deserve to attend a high quality public school, whether that is a district school or a public charter school. She is a tireless champion for Boston’s students because she knows first hand the transformative power of educational opportunity. Chynah will be the first public charter school graduate to serve in the Legislature, and we couldn’t be more excited to help send her to Beacon Hill.
“Though tonight’s result in the 2nd Middlesex district wasn’t the outcome we were hoping for, I want to congratulate Leland Cheung on running a thoughtful, issue-oriented campaign. In a low-turnout primary election on a Thursday, it proved impossible for a Democrat to withstand the withering negative attacks launched by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). No Democrat running for the Massachusetts state Senate has ever been on the receiving end of nearly $45,000 worth of attacks from a special interest group, as the MTA ultimately spent nearly $107,000 overall on this 2nd Middlesex district race alone.
“Democrats for Education Reform has endorsed more than 25 courageous Massachusetts Democrats running in state and municipal races over the past two election cycles. In that time, DFER has never engaged in any attacks, but given the MTA’s actions this cycle, we are reconsidering that approach. We aren’t afraid to challenge a status quo that isn’t working for our students. DFER is willing and eager to stand shoulder to shoulder with any Democrat who is a champion for children and their right to attend a great public school, whether it’s a district or a public charter. Courageous Democrats like these who have our kids’ backs can be sure that DFER has theirs.”
DFER has supported more than 25 Democrats in Massachusetts state and municipal elections over the past four years. In today’s primary election, DFER supported the following 10 candidates:
• Michael Blanton
• Michael Bloomberg
• Leland Cheung
• Ewell Hopkins
• Aaron Kanzer
• Juana Matias
• David Ouellette
• Saritin Rizzuto
• Kerby Roberson
• Chynah Tyler
On Friday, September 2, Sen. Pat Jehlen and Liam Kerr, the Massachusetts State Director of Democrats for Education Reform, debated for more than 40 minutes. Realizing the debate did not go her way, Sen. Jehlen proposed a second debate for this afternoon. The following is in response to her proposed do over.
In our debate last Thursday, Senator Jehlen refused to condemn the record-breaking outside spending on attack ads against her opponent. It has been four weeks since outside money started to pour into her race to attack her opponent, and Jehlen has refused to call on the Massachusetts Teachers Association to stop.
There is no reason to accept the challenge of a second debate on outside money in elections from the current record-holder in outside attack ads.
Instead, I ask Senator Jehlen in join us in asking our allies in teachers union leadership to condemn the following actions:
Withholding legally required information from voters: In the recent state Senate election in the First Suffolk and Middlesex, a race decided by fewer than 400 votes, the Massachusetts Teachers Association was fined for failing to report the source of attack mailers within the required reporting period. Groups affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers were required to pay $30,000 in fines for hiding the source of funding in the 2013 Boston mayoral race.
Endorsing Republicans: In the recent state Senate election in the Plymouth-Norfolk district, the Boston Teachers Union and Massachusetts AFL-CIO, of which the MTA is a member,endorsed Republican Patrick O’Connor over progressive Democrat Joan Meschino. The teachers union-endorsed Republican won by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Attacking Democrats: In the recent First Suffolk and Middlesex race, the attack ads sent by the MTA-affiliated group were based on a blatant lie to scare voters. And in Jehlen’s state Senate race in the Second Middlesex district, the MTA has spent more than more than $43,000 attacking a Democratic City Councilor, state Senate candidate, and former Democratic State Committee member. If we are going to bring a Democrat to the corner office in 2018, we must condemn these actions that undermine both the Democratic Party and our democracy. While we may disagree on some education policies and some aspects of elections, we can agree on these basic principles.
Boston charter schools achieve tremendous results. They rank among the top public schools in the state, with long wait lists. The majority of Massachusetts voters tell pollsters they want more charter schools.
So why did some Boston elected officials vote last week to oppose more charters? I can tell you why, because, at one time, I was one of them.
As a first-time candidate for the state House of Representatives, I agreed to support charter schools only if the state changed the way it funded them. That position sounds right on the surface. Dig deeper, and you realize that the funding formula isn’t the issue. It’s a talking point that masks the real issue: teachers unions oppose public charter schools no matter how successful they are.
Then, as now, elected leaders try to have it both ways – supporting public charter schools in word and opposing them in deed.
As a lawyer, I relentlessly go where the evidence takes me. The evidence about charter schools and the extraordinary academic results they often achieve caused me to rethink my position. On this issue, I freely admit that I was wrong.
It takes courage to stand up to special interests. It takes courage for Democrats to stand up to organized labor and say that kids come first. I lost endorsements and campaign contributions. I gained new supporters and respect from those who disagreed with me but understood that I based my decision on data and my judgment of what is best for kids.
I appreciate the political dilemma Boston city councilors faced last week when they voted on whether or not to endorse Question 2, a November ballot question that would expand the number of public charter schools statewide. Supporting more charter schools means going against the teachers unions, who often play an outsized role in city council elections.
Yet opposing more charter schools means blocking access to great schools for the 10,000 Boston families with children on charter school waiting lists, who are desperate to give their children a better education and a brighter future.
Some city councilors spoke about how they believe charter schools take money away from district schools. What they didn’t say: the funding follows a student to whichever public school educates the child, and the state sends additional money to a traditional school district for six years after a student departs for a public charter to cover the district’s transitional costs.
Ultimately the charter school battle has as much to do with the incentives in our political system as it does with school funding. Teachers unions have persuaded many Democrats that they face political peril if they support charters, when the truth is President Obama, former Gov. Deval Patrick, and Hillary Clinton, all Democrats, support them. But it’s far easier for elected officials to go along with powerful special interests that help elect and re-elect them.
Charter schools aren’t right for everyone. In fact, the vast majority of children will attend district schools, which is why I’ve devoted so much of my career to improving district schools. In my ideal world, 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, which fulfills our moral obligation to meet their educational needs. It’s disappointing to see so many Boston city councilors adopt the easy “it's about money” argument rather than stand on the side of families who want a great public education for their children, including at charter schools.
As a Democrat, I believe government can help make people’s lives better and should focus on the most effective ways to do that. Charter schools work, which is why I support Question 2.
Marty Walz, a Democrat, represented Boston and Cambridge in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 2005-2013. She currently serves as the Chair of the Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts Advisory Council.
This piece was originally published in the Boston Herald.