March 17, 2014
Since last year, legislation to lift the cap on public charter schools in Boston and other low-performing Massachusetts school districts has been stalled. If the Legislature’s Education Committee opts not to act by March 19, the bill dies.
Some adults in district school systems oppose increasing the number of charter public schools. They argue that new charter schools would, for shame, loosen their vise-like grip on education funds and the futures of thousands of children. Twenty years after the landmark education reform law that created charter schools, they claim that the charter “experiment” hasn’t just yet proven itself.
The facts tell a different story.
Charters are free to students and their parents. They are every bit as much “public” schools as are the district schools.
Today, 8,000-plus Boston students attend charter schools and are admitted by lottery. The lotteries are heartbreaking. Last week statewide 13,000 students vied for 2,200 open charter seats.
Boston’s district schools, the traditional form of public schools, rank in the bottom 10 percent of all schools in the state. To give Boston’s district schools credit, about one-third of them are quite good. That is to be applauded. The others, however, are marked by poor academic performance and high dropout rates. Those who graduate are routinely unprepared for work or college.
With over one-third of Boston students today either enrolled in Boston public charter schools or languishing on charter wait lists, legislators like state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who represents neighborhoods in Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale and Roxbury, face an obvious dilemma.
Chang-Diaz is co-chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, and she has been blocking advancement of the bill that would allow Boston to open more charter schools.
Boston parents who want to send their children to a charter school represent thousands of votes for or against her. She should be advancing the interests of the children and families in the neighborhoods she represents. That would require that she support increasing the number of public charter schools in Boston.
Last year, a Stanford University study found that Boston charters are doing more to close wealth- and race-based achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country. Another recent study, commissioned by the Boston Foundation and conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers, found that academic gains from a year in a Boston charter school were similar to those from a year spent in one of the city’s elite exam schools. In 2012, 20 charter schools — including six from Boston — were the top performers in the entire commonwealth on various MCAS tests. Finally, the success of Boston charter school students in college is well-documented.
Leadership is not always doing what is politically expedient. While anyone familiar with Massachusetts politics understands that teachers unions are a powerful force in the State House, Chang-Diaz’s personal ambitions should take a back seat to students’ futures and the aspirations of the thousands of parents that she represents.
Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.