Birch: Charter school education put him on a path to a better future

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.



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ViewPoint: Business-heavy charter school boards should be copied, not maligned

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.

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Editorial: Charters aren’t draining district school funding

This editorial originally appeared in the Boston Globe

FOR MONTHS, MASSACHUSETTS voters have been told that charter schools are draining money from traditional public schools, thereby threatening the education of non-charter students across the state. That’s the principal argument that charter opponents have offered in urging voters to defeat Question 2, which would allow 12 new charter schools or charter school expansions.

But a detailed new report by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation shows that the anti-charter argument just doesn’t pass muster. Summarizing its deep dive into public school funding, the foundation, widely regarded as an even-handed fiscal analyst, writes: “Examination of school funding trends in districts affected by charter school enrollments does not suggest that charter schools are over-funded, that students in district schools are suffering a loss of support, or that the per-student funding of districts is trending negatively. Rather, per-student funding has increased quite steadily across the state, and the district-charter balance has been stable.”

The study, which was funded by the Boston Foundation, notes that in fiscal year 2016, approximately 3.9 percent of public school students (about 36,000 Massachusetts students) were attending charters — and 3.9 percent of public school funds went to charter schools.

That, as the report notes, is in keeping with the state’s long-established educational philosophy: Educational dollars should follow the student. That’s the same philosophy that informs the state’s school-choice program, which allows a student from one district to attend a school in another and have his state and district dollars go to that school. And its regional vocational education program, in which a student’s state and district dollars go the regional institution rather than a district school. But in those programs, the sending district isn’t reimbursed any amount for the departing students, whereas with charters, there’s generous adjustment funding, including the payment of 100 percent of a student’s educational cost the first year after his or her departure. (In the tough fiscal times of the last several years, the reimbursement formula has not been fully funded.)

Since the last charter cap lift, in January 2010, three-quarters of the increase in charter school students has come in eight urban districts: Boston, Springfield, Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, Chelsea, Fall River, and New Bedford. At the time of the cap lift, the report notes, about 7.1 percent of students in those districts were in charters — and about 7 percent of total education spending was on charters. Now, about 11.4 percent of students in those communities go to charters, and 11.6 percent of total education spending is for charters. The slight differences are generally driven by the greater educational costs accorded to certain categories of students.

Non-charter spending per pupil is up by an average of 10.1 percent in those districts, charter per-pupil funding by 11.8 percent. Further, non-charter spending in those districts is up not just on a per pupil basis, but on an overall basis, over the last five budget years. Those increases range from 4.3 percent in Springfield to 17.9 percent in Boston, 19 percent in Lynn, 21.5 percent in Lawrence, and 29.7 percent in Chelsea.

The report comes to the same conclusion based on school funding statewide since the last charter-school cap lift, saying: “What is not evident from an examination of aggregate funding levels over time is any resulting systematic financial disadvantage to district school students in any type of community.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report will hardly end the debate over charters. The teachers unions remain vehemently opposed to more charters, which are not automatically union schools. But it should at least put to rest the notion that charter public schools are unfairly taking education dollars from the district schools.

The fiscal facts say that’s simply not so.

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WBZ NightSide: A Conversation On Charter Schools And Question 2

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:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 3 of 3:


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Democrats For Education Reform on Massachusetts Primary Results

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



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Instead of Second Debate, Attack Ad Record-Holder Senator Jehlen Must Condemn MTA

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.



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DFER-MA on WGBH Debate Between Liam Kerr and State Senator Pat Jehlen

BOSTON – Today, WGBH hosted a nearly 40-minute debate on the 2016 election and Massachusetts public charter schools between Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts (DFER-MA) State Director Liam Kerr and State Senator Pat Jehlen. The conversation was hosted by WGBH’s Mike Deehan and can be viewed online here.

“I want to thank WGBH for hosting and Senator Jehlen for joining me for what we at DFER believe is a critical debate about expanding public educational opportunity to more children in Massachusetts,” said Liam Kerr, DFER-MA State Director. “This fall, DFER is committed to leveling the playing field for courageous Massachusetts Democrats who will champion our children and the world-class public education they deserve. When Democrats have our students’ back, DFER will have theirs.”

According to public campaign finance reports for the September 8 primary election, the independent expenditure political action committees of DFER Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) are on track to spend the exact same amount of money on behalf of their endorsed candidates.

After proposing a debate to discuss campaign funding and finance issues in this election cycle, it is clear that Senator Jehlen is far more focused on DFER’s campaign finance reports than reviewing her own. She was surprisingly unfamiliar with her disclosure reports. Transparency and compliance are core pillars of fair, open, and Democratic elections, and we encourage everyone to visit the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to stay informed:

“The moral case on behalf of kids is so clear. We have to expand what’s working for them — not foreclose opportunity for our most vulnerable students simply because it doesn’t align with divisive adult-driven politics,” said Kerr. “DFER is committed to building on Governor Patrick and President Obama’s historic, progressive legacies on public education and expanding high-performing public charter schools that are dramatically improving student learning and student success.”

Additionally, the Senator flat-out refused to talk about — or call for an end to — the negative attacks that the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) has been hurling at her opponent, Leland Cheung. This election cycle, as in all previous elections, DFER-MA is committed to having a positive debate about who is most willing to prioritize improving public education, rather than engaging in distracting and toxic personal attacks.


Liam Kerr, State Director, DFER-MA


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New Poll Shows Massachusetts Democrats Strongly Support Ballot Question on Public Charter Schools

New Poll Shows Massachusetts Democrats Strongly Support Ballot Question on Public Charter Schools

BOSTON — Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) today released the results of a new poll that shows strong support among Democrats for Question 2, a ballot initiative that seeks to raise the cap on the number of public charter schools allowed to operate in the state. 59% of respondents of the telephone poll said they would definitely or probably support Question 2 this November. Just 20% said they would definitely not vote in support. A majority of Democratic voters polled, 62%, said that in general they support public charter schools. 

“This poll reinforces what we knew all along: the action recently taken by the Democratic State Committee did not represent the views of everyday Democrats,” said Liam Kerr, DFER Massachusetts State Director. “With support from 65% of Democrats who belong to a labor union that is not affiliated with a teachers’ union, there is no doubt of the strong support for lifting the cap among working families. This should serve as a wake-up call to party insiders.”  

The polling data released today supports the data in other recent public independent polls. As recently as May, a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll showed that among Democrats polled, 44% believed public charter schools offer better options for students and parents. The same poll shows that 45% of Democrats were in favor of lifting the cap, with 36% opposed.

“The opponents of Question 2 said that it is ‘silly’ to conduct a public poll of Democrats on this issue -- and now we know why,” said Marty Walz, Chair of the DFER Massachusetts Advisory Council and a former state representative. “The results clearly contradict the message promoted by the opponents of this ballot question and that’s why they didn’t want the facts to come to light. The truth is, Democrats support giving more families access to more high-quality public charter schools.”

 84% of Democrats surveyed said they consider President Barack Obama and Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton to be “real Democrats.” Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton support the expansion of high-quality public charter schools. 

The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of DFER on Tuesday, August 23 and Wednesday, August 24. DFER released the full results of the poll without any redaction. 501 Democrats responded to the poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 4.4%.


Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is a political reform organization that cultivates and supports leaders in our party who champion America’s public schoolchildren.

Contact: Matt Wilder
Phone: 617-504-1718

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We Need an Olympian Focus on Charter School Facts

Ah, the parallels.

Watching the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, one is reminded that not too long ago, a bid was launched to host the 2024 games right here in Boston. The proposal raised complex questions — and touched off a heated controversy.

Two years later, in between watching Michael Phelps and Simone Manuel make history, I saw television ads about another complex and controversial question: the proposed expansion of public charter schools in Massachusetts.

In the case of the Olympics, a ballot question on whether or not to host the games was forestalled when skeptical Beacon Hill leaders, attuned to public doubts about the plan, touched the brakes and insisted on a full factual vetting. With public skepticism growing, the US Olympic Committee decided to go elsewhere.

On the charter expansion issues, the experts who study the issue and the electorate also seem to agree. But on this one, public support for increasing access to these high-quality public schools did not persuade political leaders to do enough to avoid a ballot battle.

Back when plans to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston started gaining momentum, several colleagues and I began looking at economic studies of past Games. (We started what became “No Boston Olympics.”)

The results between rhetoric and reality could not have been more different.

Despite the boosterism that surrounded the effort, respected economists from Smith College, Harvard University, and Holy Cross had thoroughly examined past Olympics-hosting experiences, as had researchers at Oxford University. The clear conclusion of that research: No modern Olympics has stayed on budget.

The performance of public charter schools has undergone a similarly intensive review from leading experts. Researchers from Stanford University found that Boston’s charter schools are the best in the country, producing an extra year’s worth of learning every year. A study from economists at Harvard and MIT found that students selected to attend a Boston charter school in a random lottery greatly outperformed students who entered the lottery but didn’t win a spot.

However, that has not stopped dubious claims from public charter school opponents. Those claims deserve a similarly intensive review.

Take, for example, the assertion by charter opponents that charters cost the traditional public schools hundreds of millions in sorely needed funding. Earlier this year, then Globe opinion writer Farah Stockman dismantled that claim at least as pertains to Boston. Citing research from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, she wrote: “The budget for Boston Public Schools has risen every year, from $737 million in 2011 to more than $1 billion today. That’s a 25 percent increase, greater than the growth in the budgets of police, fire, and the city itself.” Further, Census Bureau data show that Boston Public Schools spent more per student last year than any of the 100 largest school districts in the nation. And despite that high level of spending, BPS traditional schools have a shorter school day and a shorter year than almost all Boston charter schools.

Instead of engaging in a honest debate about charters, critics try to shift the conversation to other topics, such as quibbling over whether a charter school waiting list that runs well over 30,000 kids might overcount by a few thousand. Or whether or not a pro-charter event could be held inside the State House.

Focusing on the facts here is particularly important for Democrats. This is a bread and butter issue. Charter schools fulfill the Democratic promise of an effective, responsive government that can provide real educational benefits to change the lives of disadvantaged urban kids.

Public discourse will always be rife with misrepresentations and misleading talking points. But there are times to stand up and scream the facts — especially when it is the entire electorate that makes the decision, not a few in a backroom.

In the court of public opinion, facts do still matter.

Just ask Boston 2024.

Liam Kerr was the Co-Founder of No Boston Olympics and is the Massachusetts Director of Democrats for Education Reform.

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe.


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A Democrat’s Case for Charter Schools

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.

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