More on Question Two

Many people were kind enough to weigh-in with feedback on the piece on Question Two that I ran last week and I thought I should follow up with some additional information.

Question Two would raise the cap on charter schools statewide.   I oppose Question Two because it goes too far.   When charter schools draw students from within a community, the community has to pay tuition to the charter school.  This can place a strain on school budgets.

To protect local schools from excessively rapid and destabilizing funding loss, current state law creates both a statewide cap on the number of charter schools and community specific caps on total charter enrollment. Question Two would abrogate both of these major limits and also several other limits that protect local school districts.  For more details, see the notebox that I added to last week’s piece and this explainer from DESE.

ln my piece last week, I expressed two concerns about this could work out.  The first concern was that in communities where schools are working relatively well, charters could deplete hard-won school resources.  In many relatively affluent communities, the state provides little aid and local parents fight hard for the school budget, often passing overrides and raising money privately.  Charters could draw these funds away, decrease accountability of the schools to local taxpayers and undermine local will to fund schools.

This concern is not theoretical.  There are 14 charters in suburban locations and 30 that draw students regionally. The risk of suburban growth exists even without Question Two. The statewide cap on the total number of Commonwealth charter schools (72) has not been reached — 16 charters remain available.   Further, most suburban communities are nowhere near the 9% cap on student enrollment — for example, 291 more Belmont students would have to enroll in charter schools for Belmont to reach 9%. For Watertown, the number is 217.

Question Two does nothing to diminish this risk and, in fact, increases it in several ways:  First by creating a permanent expansion mechanism for charter schools (12 new charters per year statewide), it increases the chances that charter operators will seek to provide educational products targeted at higher performing districts.  Second it eliminates, as to the 12 new charters annually, the prohibition on non-regional charters in communities with populations under 30,000.  Third, it eliminates, as to the 12 new charters annually, the limitation that no more than one charter per year shall be created in high performing communities.

My other major concern about Question Two is how it would affect the Boston Schools.  The Boston Schools are struggling with the challenges of school closures already.  Question Two would leave Boston with no meaningful protections on the growth of charter enrollment because the 12 new charters annually are not subject to any community level limits — they could end up disproportionately in Boston, further destabilizing a school system under strain.

My concern about destabilizing the Boston school budget originates from Boston parents.  I’m privileged to represent about 1/6th of Boston and that fraction constitutes 60% of my legislative district.  I have listened very carefully to what Boston parents have to say about charters, making sure that I was hearing their opinions in an unfiltered way.  I have reached the conclusion that a great many of them have heartfelt and legitimate concerns about how charter expansion could affect the resources available to the public schools that their children attend.   There are many local district schools in Boston that parents passionately support.

Powerful forces have lined up on opposite sides of Question Two.   I respect both the private sector education innovators and the teachers unions.  I support some charter expansion, but I do believe that Question Two goes too far.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

40 replies on “More on Question Two”

  1. Will, your Boston and Belmont examples describe very different socio-economic circumstances. What type of community (in your opinion) then is the sweet spot for charter schools?

      1. Got it. So, it is not a “do we want a law that allows more charters” question as much as a “do we want a law that allows ever more charters to keep opening up year after year” question?

  2. I am a relatively affluent resident of Boston and am not a great believer in charter schools in general, because the ultimate logic is that all public schools should become charter schools if that is indeed the preferred educational model.

    1. Yes, the ultimate logic is that all schools should be charters, meaning that a range of alternatives driven by the needs of parents should arise to replace the one size fits all mediocrity of the current government schools. The opposite logic suggests there should be one restaurant (offering inedible food), one toothpaste (sour and ineffective), and one construction company (run by the unions.)

  3. A longtime secondary educator with experience at many private schools and Belmont High School, I had the opportunity to teach in a charter school that seemed from its presentation to fit my educational and pedagogical beliefs. In fact, it was more like a prison for both students and teachers, a startling and grueling experience. The Board’s control was iron-fisted and its approach to success was to tout MCAS results above all. My attitude toward charter schools has become much more wary as a result. Public education is the bedrock of democracy; charter education creates fissures in that bedrock rather than supporting it.

  4. Tony – you said it correctly: “because the ultimate logic is that all public schools should become charter schools if that is indeed the preferred educational model.” Excatly. EVERY school should be a charter school. Maybe its time to get rid of the teacher unions and liberals who are blocking this reform. Public schools started in Massausetts – let’s shock the country again and go ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS!

    1. Jim, it’s clear that you believe our national model of public education is old and in the way, but in the way of what? Creating better learning environments for every student in every community, no matter what disadvantages or disabilities they might suffer from, or bringing in as much money with as little remediation as possible?

      You may not heard of the Turkish ex-patriot mullah Fetullah Gülen, so let me call to your attention to this Atlantic Monthly article that documents how his organization’s charter schools, which operate in a score of states, have played fast and loose with public monies to enrich his organization via undisclosed shadowy contractors.

      The article concludes that “it isn’t the Gülen movement that makes Gülen charter schools so secretive. It’s the charter school movement itself.” You see, public schools are subject to open record laws (except where individual students are concerned). Charter schools are able to hide their dealings from the public, and that is an invitation to corruption and self-aggrandizement, as the record of Gülen’s organization amply illustrates.

      Will is right and you are wrong. Corporatizing public education under the current rules of the charter school game simple leads to less transparency and accountability, which can engender innumerable abuses of public trust that self-interested corporate entities are widely known to inflict.

      I support giving public schools more resources to educate all children rather than diverting the most promising kids to support someone’s business model and leave the less able students twisting in the wind.

      If you think charter schools should take over the world, please explain what it would take to give parents, teachers, and taxpayers confidence that they are operating honestly, competently, transparently, and in the best interests of their students. These are the educational issues of the day.

      We have a private health insurance industry that has abjectly failed to provide adequate access to medical care for all. Would a privatized educational system perform any better? Simply asserting that that it’s a magic bullet that will improve educational achievement for all just doesn’t hack it for me. It’s just one more tempting way for private interests to suck from the government’s tit and leave students from disadvantaged communities malnourished.

      Lastly, just how do you propose to “get rid of teacher unions and ‘liberals’?” Send them to gulags? Get real. This isn’t Kansas anymore. Never was and never will be.

  5. I’m 100% behind you on this Senator. Charter schools are simply a way for big business to turn kids into commodities. In many states charter schools have almost no regulation leading to widespread fraud and abuse. We should be properly funding our public schools, not turning education into a for profit business-all we need to do is look at the national student debt crisis in colleges for a good taste of what happens when we make education into a for-profit business. Just follow the money. Who’s paying for the propaganda and commercials advocating yes on two? It’s not parents donations, it’s corporations looking to get a big return on their investment. Charter schools are a business first and a learning center second. That’s really what it boils down to. We don’t have a public school problem, we have a public school funding problem. The worst possible solution to a public funding problem is privatization. Public education has been a longstanding right afforded to American children, it should be properly and equally funded, not privatized so corporations can turn a profit on it.

  6. Dear Will,

    As I wrote before, I think charter schools subvert public education, especially in poor neighborhoods, by skimming the cream of the best students from the public schools. As you know, public schools are obliged to accept every student in a district, whereas charter schools can pick and choose. It is an example of what could be called “backwards natural selection.” As the charter school draws off more of the good students, the proportion of poor learners and students with behavioral problems in the public school grows. This makes it much harder for the public school to provide an adequate education for children at greater risk. It is a matter of justice.

  7. Still well-reasoned, Senator. Education is a public service, and anything that undercuts this public benefit from our taxes is counterproductive, no matter how well-intentioned.

    Better to fight the unwarranted tenure status of teachers who have not had to meet the kind of rigorous scrutiny and testing that tenured college or university faculty need to pass.

    Better also to permit good teachers greater freedom in teaching the way they find successful, and not having to adhere to the detailed mandates of well-intentioned but often far-removed policymakers who try to design a one-size-fits-all solution for education. There is value in creating broad scope of teaching objectives, but leaving to non-tenured but innovative teachers how to achieve those objectives.

    It’s a balancing act worthy of intensive pursuit!

  8. Senator, I disagree.

    All the evidence that I have seen shows that charter students have better performance. There is other evidence that is more incredible–charter students have lower pregnancy rates and incarceration rates. Despite this, my support of charters does not hinge on this evidence. As long as a parent thinks the charter is the right school for their child, that is all I need to know.

    I have not seen any evidence to support your contention that charter schools might hurt local schools. All the evidence that I have seen shows that academic performance in the home district stays about the same. If there is evidence to the contrary or evidence of diminished funding, I would like to read it.

    The last time I looked at the financial implications, it seemed to me that local schools lose quite a bit less than average cost. That being said, let’s stick with your assumption that they lose exactly average cost. Even if this is true, the local district is much better off financially. Average cost does not include the value of buildings and land. This is significant. Every charter school reduces district demand by an entire school, thus returning the value of the building and land back to school district, allowing more resources to be distributed to a reduced number of students.

    If our focus is on children and parents, in my eyes, charters are a win-win.

    1. This point about how much local schools lose is important. The main point is this: Most local schools are underfunded and it is extremely difficult for a whole lot of reasons, good and bad, to move resources around within school systems. Charter departures add to the strain.

      There is a fascinating, but perpetually inconclusive theoretical conversation to have about marginal and average cost pricing, the state’s reimbursement for charter, etc. That conversation does not lead to closure.

      What is much more convincing is to sit through a few local school budget hearings.

  9. Senator Brownsberger: “First by creating a permanent expansion mechanism for charter schools (12 new charters per year statewide)…”

    But that maximum of “12” is reduced by each of any “amendments to increase authorized enrollment” that are allowed by the ballot question. What would be a likely ratio of new schools relative to expansions? My impression based, for example, on the August 2016 document titled “6 Groups Seek to Open New Charter Schools, 12 Existing Schools Seek to Expand Enrollment” is that expansions are more common than new schools. And one would expect the ratio to tilt further over time toward expansions relative to new charters.

    In a state with about 1750 regular district schools, we might most realistically expect perhaps just 2 to 5 new charter schools allowed each year by passage of the ballot question?

    Senator B: “Second it eliminates, as to the 12 new charters annually, the prohibition on non-regional charters in communities with populations under 30,000. Third, it eliminates, as to the 12 new charters annually, the limitation that no more than one charter per year shall be created in high performing communities.”

    If there are some legal beagles handy, I’d sure appreciate it if they could sniff around the text of the ballot question and the statute to see how much agreement there is on that interpretation. And I hope you’ll take another close look at the text, Senator.

    The initiative petition states: “Except as provided in this paragraph, all otherwise applicable provisions of this section shall apply to commonwealth charters or amendments approved under this paragraph.”

    My amateur reading of pertinent aspects of the proposed law: Notwithstanding any current statewide or local limitations on the number of charter schools, a maximum total of 12 more charter schools can each year be created OR expanded statewide. Certain percentages of net school spending will no longer serve as a barrier to those, but other provisions of the statute ARE still applicable, such as the prohibition on non-regional charters in communities with populations under 30,000 and the limitation that no more than one charter per year shall be created in high performing communities.

    1. Thanks again for thoughtful dialog, Stephen.

      You are right about the interchangeability of charter enrollment increases with new charters, but I think it is a wrinkle. I don’t think it makes a difference to my analysis — from the standpoint of a sending district it comes down to the same thing.

      As to whether the referendum abrogates the other existing limits, as I have asserted: it seems very clear that the limit of one per year in high performing communities is a numeric limit abrogated by the sweeping “Notwithstanding the provisions of this subsection (i) relative to the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the commonwealth or in any district ,. . .”.

      As to whether that language also abrogates the prohibition on non-regional charters in communities under 30,000, lawyers may quarrel — some might argue that limit is not a numeric limit, but I read it as a numeric limit to zero in those communities. That’s the kind of uncertainty you get in an initiative petition that hasn’t gone through the heavy negotiation that the legislative process affords.

  10. I was very happy to hear your opposition to Question 2. I am a teacher in Watertown and am very concerned about what a raise in the cap could mean. We need more funding for public education rather than having public school funds drained by charter schools who can pick and choose which students to accept.

  11. I believe that most relatively affluent suburbs have good to adequate school systems, and that the principles of supply and demand will end the need for charter schools in those communities; they will be forced to shut-down due to parental lack of interest.

    This is really is about the inadequate Boston Public School system and a relatively small effort to improve opportunities for promising students.

    Decades ago, the fear of the Boston Public School system caused a major flight to the suburbs, a decrease in neighborhood real estate values, and ruination of many city neighborhoods.

    I grew up in an affluent suburb, but at age 17 moved to Dorchester with my 40 yo widowed mother and two younger sisters. I have a bit of experience of what we encountered with a Boston school system which seemed from another planet.

    1. It wasn’t fear of the Boston Public School system: It was fear of bussing and desegregated schools. African-American school activists were having Molotov cocktails thrown through their windows in the early 1970’s when busing began. Racism has played a huge part in Boston’s past and present woes. Just look at the controversies at Boston Latin – which is NOT a charter school.

  12. I had already changed my mind to vote no on 2. Your well-reasoned piece today has just added more good reasons that should convince anyone. By the way my mother taught public grammar school in the then small town of Braintree. So much about a well- run system of public education is good. As long as the people who need it get good education, and the home and community support – and discipline – that is very important, there is no need for question 2.

  13. What troubles me is that Teachers Unions are spending lots to the defeat of Question 2 and I think the motivation is strictly to protect hours,pay and working conditions,NOT what is best for education of students.

    1. At least where the money is coming from is clear for the ‘noon2’ side. The money for ‘yeson2’ is almost all dark money coming from out of state. ‘Noon2’ is supported by teachers, parents, students and citizens of the state of MA, all of whom are truly stakeholders in this issue. Who really knows who is supporting ‘yeson2’ and what their end game is. I think it’s a bit naive to say their motivations are purely “for the kids”.

  14. PS: I am not sure my earlier Post got my point across.

    My mother and I visited the assigned schools for my younger sisters and were frightened by the conditions there. She and I were both working, as I paid for an expensive private HS last year of education.

    It took us almost a year to get my younger sisters out of a hell hole Boston School system into Catholic Schools, which my mother and I could ill afford.

    My sisters got a decent education, attended and graduated from college, and are now married, safe, and relatively affluent. They both work in social services and education to help others.

  15. 2 points in support of NO on question 2. 1) I was a Boston public school volunteer at an elementary school in Mission Hill(4th grade). The teacher (without an aide) was wonderful. Every child in the class could have used a personal advocate/tutor. They were clean but tattered, hungry for the school meals. They were respectful and clambering for attention. My job varied from assignments to one child to my favorite, reading to the class. The importance of that jolted me one day when, after sitting down with one child and reading for a while, the teacher asked me to turn around, where I saw that the whole class had drawn up their chairs behind me and were in rapt attention. In the face of this controversy, I am re-upping on my volunteer job with BPS and would encourage any person who wants to help BPS and its students to succeed to join in. I support charter education but it is not going to be available for every child and many of those left out desperately need attention. 2) A trusted colleague of mine has another primary job as a BPS special ed teacher. He tells me that charter schools are (?largely or totally)unregulated by the standards set for public schools. I know no details about this but will certainly look into it. Success by proven excellence is splendid but I want to be sure public school educated children have exposure to the needs and reality of all children’s lives. Such preparation is essential for living in this increasingly disparate world.

    Thank you, Senator, for your splendidly reliable careful overview of the question.

    Lorraine Schieve

  16. Senator Brown, your understanding of this misdirected approach to educating all of our young is exemplary–it is at once representative, praiseworthy, and cautionary.

    We will vote no on this question.

  17. I’m 100% against charter schools as they function presently. So, my interest here would be to DIMINISH charter schools not increase them now unless each and every one,in current operation, be transposed into a self sustaining, cost free, and contain higher standards than the public school system. Why should we add to the current K thru 12th grade public system any schools that sets standards that don’t promise better results than the public system?

  18. Your write up convinced me that Q2 does go a little too far. I’d like the No vote to take it then but thinking I might still vote Yes so that Yes doesn’t lose by too wide a margin. If it’s close then that might send a message to legislators that yes, this measure went too far but voters like myself still consider charters to be an important part of the solution to the MA education problem.

  19. In addition to the above, I would be concerned about the overproduction and duplication of public school infrastructure on the taxpayer dime for the private benefit of charter school management. I understand the fact that there needs to be competition in the public education business to hold costs down but this end has not been thought out.

  20. By capping charter schools as we have done now, aren’t we guaranteeing that the charter schools will always have the cream of the crop of students? If enrollment is limited, the best students will be the only students who really have the option of a charter school. By raising the cap and allowing more charters, more students will have the opportunity to go to them, and the charters will have no choice but to accept students who are lower performing or more difficult to educate for whatever reason. It is for this reason why I am voting Yes on Question 2.

    1. Thanks, Charlie,

      Charters are already required to have an inclusive admissions policy. I’m not one who thinks that charters are taking the cream of the crop. I wouldn’t vote Yes for that reason.


  21. I have two reasons to vote Yes on 2.
    The first is that the history of Boston Schools, which is quite long, gives me no reason to think they can reform themselves. People have been upset about the Boston schools since at least the 1920’s, and they certainly were when I moved to Boston in the 1950’s. Over the last sixty years I have had a number of friends engage in a number of kinds of relationships with the schools and none of them ended positively.

    The second reason comes from the Brookings report. Everyone should read the entire report (URL below*) but here is one sentence that I found key: “One year in a Boston charter therefore erases roughly a third of the racial achievement gap.”

    Wow. A third of the gap. How can we possibly turn our backs on that?? I can’t.


  22. I would like to ask Meg Muckenhoupt where she grew up, and where she raised her children (if any any) while mouthing o
    ff about racism…what a shout out loud joke!

  23. Dear Meg Muckenhoupt

    I would love to hear what you have ever done to help others. I can answer you back with what my entire family has worked for and contributed to others.

    Cat got your tongue?

  24. I agree with general sentiments expressed her that the focus of improvement has to be on Boston schools, but I disagree with the implications of some that all Boston schools are basket cases and think there are still ways to work within that system.

    However, as Will’s dialog with Stephen B Ronan indicates, the inititative is quite ambiguous if not poorly written, and for that reason alone I will oppose its passage. The legislature should weigh in (yet again, and hopefully without succumbing to lobbying by vested interests).

  25. Thanks for working this issue over with constituents. I appreciate your perspective and decision to oppose, as I do, charter expansion.

    But why not also challenge the tuition siphon? Let the charter cap be unlimited, and have all new charter schools raise their own funds? After so many years, let’s declare the experiment now over.

    Boston is a special case. After decades of bearing the brunt of racially motivated red-lining, housing segregation and school neglect in communities that white people abandoned, Boston deserves more than simple per pupil city and state allocations. It is NOT like wealthy suburban schools in so many ways.

    Let’s decide as members of the state with arguably the best schools in the country, if not the world, that Boston schools deserve to be among those flagships and put in the resources required to get there.

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