Among the first 100 individuals commenting (by email and on online) on my recent article on charter schools, there were passionate opinions on both sides, but there was a distinct numeric tilt (53-34) against charter expansion, a tilt that was consistent across the communities that I represent.
I’ve read all the statements a few times. The statements that meant most to me were those that told personal stories and/or shared local perceptions. One recurring perception was that charter schools find ways to send kids that are challenging back to the district schools. I’m sure there is some truth to that, although I’m also sure it isn’t true in every charter school. The other recurring and indisputable point was the drain on local district resources.
After listening to these comments and listening further to colleagues, here are my main current thoughts:
- The end game will not be that charters take over education in Massachusetts. Many communities passionately support their local district schools and many parents lack the system savvy to find their way into charters. We should be putting most of our energy into improving local district schools, which will always serve a majority of our students.
- The magic in good schools comes from a sense of caring and purpose among the faculty which translates into high expectation setting for the kids. We should be doing everything we can to build morale in district schools. Expansion of charters conflicts with that goal if it forces annual downsizing of district schools.
- At the same time, some charters, by breaking the mold, may help recreate that sense of caring and purpose and boost expectations where they have bottomed out. Certainly, charters are also here to stay and will continue to serve some fraction of our students. Some charter schools are doing a very good job serving some kids — I’ve heard enough heart-felt testimonials from parents to believe that.
- The statement that there are waiting lists for charters is not, in itself, a compelling reason for raising the cap. Popular district schools are also over-subscribed in Boston. The case for expansion seems most compelling where parents want to extend a good charter experience to higher grades. We should allow the successful charters to stabilize with a full K-12 sequence, but should otherwise consider only very modest expansion within communities and statewide.
- Any increase in the charter cap should be targeted to districts where dissatisfaction with local district schools is high. Any measure allowing more charters where desired should also eliminate the possibility of charters in places where scores are high and satisfaction is high: If there is no local perception that a school system is broken, we should not be threatening it with fixes. This is common sense, but also based on the data — see “Urban Charter Schools Often Succeed. Suburban Ones Often Don’t” and (less clearly) the Stanford study of Massachusetts charters.
- We should be adopting a more robust approach to reimbursing local school districts for charter tuition when kids transfer to charter schools. Mayor Walsh’s approach, which would pay a higher reimbursement for a shorter period seems to offer a better transition. His idea that the sending cities should not be at risk for underfunding of the reimbursement by the state is also sound. If the charter schools themselves were at risk when the state underfunds reimbursement, they would be better partners in advocating for full funding.
- Time on task is the one thing that almost always helps learning. Expanding learning time is about increased funding, but also about controlling instructional costs — charters are able to expand learning time because they often don’t bargain collectively with teachers. Alas, neither increasing funding nor cutting costs through collective bargaining is easy in local district schools, but we should be looking for ways to support it where the need for it is greatest.
As this conversation continues, I hope we can keep ourselves focused on our own direct perceptions and Massachusetts-specific facts. The choice we are making is really about Massachusetts and should be based on perceptions of how things are working here. While there is a national fight going on about charters and local schools, every state has its own institutions, laws, politics, demographics and history. Neither the successes nor the failures of the charter movement in other states tell us much about how charters are working here.