The conversation about charter schools

The Senate is considering legislation to expand charter schools in Massachusetts. I am deeply interested to know how parents feel about the proposed changes — I give great weight to parents’ perceptions about what approach will best serve their children.

Boston is the real dilemma. In Belmont and Watertown and many other suburbs, parents passionately support their district schools and any competition from charters would be generally unwelcome.1 In the most disadvantaged districts, like Lawrence and Holyoke, charters seem like a needed alternative. But in Boston, there are conflicting considerations — on the one hand, some parents want more options for their kids; on the other hand, they don’t want charters to drain resources from district schools that they support.

What are charter schools?

Charter schools2 are just public schools that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education licenses and supervises. All public schools are regulated by DESE, but most are directly supervised by a school committee. Charter schools are subject to higher accountability than district schools — they have to be reauthorized by DESE every five years.

Charter schools are non-profit entities subjected to most of the same basic rules that apply to public schools (notably the testing requirements for graduation).3 They differ in a few important respects:

How are charter schools funded?

When students choose to attend a charter school, the school district that they opt-out of has to pay tuition to the charter school.  The tuition is computed based on the per pupil spending level of the sending district.  So, subject to some adjustments, if a school district has 10,000 students and spends $150,000,000 year, if they lose 1,000 students to a charter school, they will send $15,000,000 to the charter school.  Their school budget will have to shrink accordingly.

However, for the sending district, it will not automatically cost less to educate 9,000 students than it does to educate 10,000 students — a sending school district may have to go through some restructuring to be efficient at a lower head-count.  In theory, the state recognizes this problem and offers charter tuition reimbursement to give the sending district time to adjust — 100% in the first year and 25% for the next five years.4  In practice, the state tends to fail to fully fund this formula, so reimbursement comes in at a lower level.  Also, to the extent that the district had some economies of scale at a higher head-count, those economies may be lost.  Larger districts may have the ability to offer more specialized student assistance, advanced courses, etc., but when they shrink, they may be less able to do so.

How would pending legislation expand charter schools?

The number of charters that DESE can issue has risen in a series of steps since charters were introduced in 19935. Currently, the cap stands at 72 statewide. As a further restriction, not more than 9% of any one district’s budget that can be diverted to charters.   In the 10% of communities with the lowest test scores, the budget limit is 18%. In those communities, charters above the 9% level do not count against the statewide numeric cap of 72.  A number of communities, notably Boston which is subject to the 18% cap, are starting to bump up against their cap. A new charter school takes several years to set up. Although, at the moment, Boston has not reached its cap, the growth already in the pipeline is great enough that planning for new charters is subject to uncertainty created by the cap.

The proposed ballot question would allow 12 additional charters per year statewide, without restriction by the district budget caps, provided that the total number of charter seats added does not exceed 1% of statewide enrollment.  Because Boston has relatively high school spending, charters coming into Boston can plan for a higher budget.  There are plenty of schools with low test scores in Boston, so for charters with the laudable ambition to raise test scores, Boston is an attractive market.  Under the language on the ballot, nothing would stop DESE from putting a disproportionate share of the new charters in Boston, substantially destabilizing the Boston schools.  For that reason, I cannot support either the ballot question or the Governor’s similar bill.

The question that remains for me is whether a Boston expansion with some reasonable limits to it is desirable.  Mayor Walsh has proposed a moderate approach that allow the diversion of local funding to rise by 1/2 percentage point each year from 18% to 23%.   That might or not be the right growth level, but the idea of setting some growth ceiling seems necessary.

What do parents want?

The one thing I hear parents in Boston say with clarity is that they wish that they had good quality neighborhood schools — they don’t want to put their kids on a bus every day and they miss the intimacy with teachers and other parents that comes from routine daily contact in pick-up and drop-off.   This is the great advantage that suburban schools have over the Boston schools — the closeness between school and neighborhood.  I am not sure how that consideration plays into the charter debate.

I’d really like to hear from parents about their preferences on the charter issue. Of course, there are many other directions that we should be exploring to strengthen local district schools and I’m also interested to hear parents’ thoughts about other directions.

Foot Notes:

  1. Generally charter schools have not sought suburban locations, in part due to preferences built into the law. Charter schools may not be sited in communities with populations below 30,000 (unless they are regional charters). See G.L. c. 71, §89(i). A list of currently authorized charters can be viewed by selecting Charter Schools on this DESE search screen.
  2. In this piece, I use the phrase “charter school” to refer to what are legally known as commonwealth charter schools.  Horace Mann charter schools are a hybrid construct that can be created under school district supervision. There are only 4 Horace Mann charter schools among the 82 charter schools listed on the DESE website.
  3. Chapter 71, Section 89 defines the law of charter schools.  Section (s) makes clear that the general laws applicable to schools apply (excepting the professional status laws).  Section (v) further clarifies this as to performance and testing.  Section (ii) requires passage of the teacher’s exam, but does not require licensing for charter school teachers.
  4. The tuition computation and reimbursement schedule appear in sections (ff) and (gg) of Chapter 71, Section 89.
  5. The original 1993 reform legislation set a statewide cap of 25 of which no more than 5 were to be in Boston.  The total enrollment was capped at 0.75% of the state’s total school enrollment.  In 1997, the legislature raised the cap to 37 charter schools (and 13 Horace Mann charter schools), not more than 6% of any district’s spending, and not more than 2% of the state’s total school enrollment. In 2000, the legislature raised the cap to 72 charter schools (and 48 Horace Mann charter schools), not more than 9% of any district’s spending and not more than 4% of the state’s total school enrollment.  The 2010 reform eliminated the 4% state wide cap and raised the 9% district spending cap to 18% in the lowest performing 10% of school districts.  Schools added above the 9% level in the lowest performing districts are excluded from the statewide 72 school cap.

If you would like to comment, please visit this continuation thread.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

103 replies on “The conversation about charter schools”

  1. We need to raise the cap on Charter schools. The children of Boston deserve a quality education and should not have to rely on a lottery system to get it.

  2. More charter schools are needed and as soon as possible. Public education in Boston has been a severe disappointment to our children

  3. For me Will the question is what is the strategy behind charter schools? Why do we have them and who are they designed to serve?

    Your note describes what they and how they are managed but you don’t say why we have them. Are they intended to improve education for a few or are they intended to be an alternative which somehow improves education for all?

    It seems counterintuitive to diffuse the limited funding that public schools have unless there is a clear reason for doing so.

    As a parent, who had children attend public schools, I would argue we need to explain the reason for having charter schools before we can decide whether we need more of them. It would also be helpful to understand how charter schools are performing vs the goals they have established for themselves.

  4. Thanks for the clear and helpful summary. I definitely support lifting the charter cap. I know parents in Boston who are desperate for their kids to get into a charter school, but they didn’t win the entrance the lottery. I can only imagine the anguish of knowing there are good schools nearby, but the legislature passed a cap that prevents the school from letting your kid in. I don’t buy the argument that it hurts kids who stay in the regular public schools. Charter schools have even less of economies of scale. If a charter school can educate a student for the same amount of money as the district average, the district (which is still larger than any charger in it) should have no problem educating its remaining students with the same amount. Parents should be allowed to choose where their kids go to school, and taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for schools parents are choosing against. Let the taxpayers money go to the schools the parents choose. No cap should stand in the way.

    1. the funding of schools by local property taxes is the driving force that perpetuates the system where the affluent get better facilities and can afford better teachers. In addition, the parents will be more affluent and likely more able to assist their kids and hire tutors. I live in Newton, and that’s what we did of course. Nothing will change ( in a major way) until there is less poverty / income inequality. It’s common sense- just look around. Kids from affluent families ( or whose parents are well educated, but not necessarily affluent ) will tend to do better in school. Teachers are important, but nothing outweighs the family situation. Charter schools, Ed reform – it’s a nice try but in the many years it’s now been going on where are we? No much better off.

      1. I agree with this. We’re looking at a society wide problem, not just a ‘school’ problem. Indeed we are not much better off because efforts at ‘school reform’ over past decades did not change the fundamental flaws in the public school system. I am aghast that we still expect to run a single government operated education system. It totalitarian and it stinks. There should be way more choices for families to choose from, not this old tired one-size-fits all system which is part of a huge ‘educational industrial complex’ with a nation wide budget bigger than the defense department (yes, it’s true, just add up all the taxes at all levels of government and so-called ‘education’ outspends the entire military).
        Our education system is OBSOLETE (yes, I’m shouting), and I really wish, for the sake of our children, we stood up and recognized that fact.

  5. Nearly 10,000 schoolchildren in Boston are benefiting from the longer school days and school years, more demanding curriculum, and higher expectations set in charter schools. It makes no sense to limit what is working, especially when so many more families are desperate to have their children attend these schools. Please raise the cap on charter schools.

  6. I am not currently a parent, but I vividly remember the anguish of the busing crisis in Boston. unfortunately, the result was to gut support for the educational system in the city, and it has taken years to recover.
    without a good educational system, it is just about impossible to attract families who will stay in the area, leaving the city to the young singles and the empty nesters.
    further, every child has maybe 10 years to learn the basics. if he or she isn’t given the tools needed to be a productive member of society when the time is right, it is hard to make things up later.
    so I would favor a controlled expansion of charter schools, as mayor Walsh suggests. perhaps there cook be an opt-out option for communities that are happy with their schools as they are. it seems to be a situation where one size does not fit all, but one which urgently needs our attention.

  7. There are too many unanswered questions and unresolved issues about charter schools for me to be comfortable supporting a cap lift at this time. BPS parents have been asking questions about transparency for ages, only to be diverted over and over. While you state that the charters have a formula to follow to ensure that their population is reflective of the district, it has been shown again and again that they are taking proportionally far fewer ELL and SPED students than BPS. Charters are still not back filling seats and the wait list statistics are not accurate either, as per the state auditor’s report. Suspension rates are significantly higher at Boston’s charter schools than in district schools. As a parent who has seen our child’s BPS school’s budget cut year after year, I have to question how we can justify diverting more and more funds away from BPS, when BPS will continue to be required to shoulder the burden of educating the most challenging, expensive children to educate. For those of you on this list, how many of you have children in BPS? I do. I like my child’s school very much. I am tired of our questions and concerns about charters being repeatedly ignored. Please let’s address these issues before considering draining more funding from our district schools.

  8. I don’t currently have any children, but it seems to me that the more options we can provide for parents, the better. In Boston, I often hear about young parents wishing to stay in the city with their children, but they end up leaving because the public schools are lousy (or at least the perception is that they are lousy.) If more charter schools keep families where they actually want to be, I think that’s a good thing. It sounds like having some competition may also entice the people running the Public Schools to continue to improve them or else they’re going to find more and more of their funding being diverted to charter schools.

  9. I am a teacher educator at a local State university. My daughter went through the Boston Public School System.

    I think that all children should be able to get an excellent public education. One of the things that charter schools have in their favor is that these schools are smaller, the teachers know their students, and the students are often held to high(er) standards. The charter schools can also be more selective in their applicant process and pick the more prepared, higher functioning students. When a charter school student doesn’t comply with the standards of the charter school, however, they get kicked back to the public non-charter school, hence, putting more of a burden on the public non-charter school.

    Our public schools should not suffer, financially, b/c there are charter schools around. They should have the facilities and skills and encouragement to be the type of school that students and their parents WANT them to go to.

    An optional idea to more charter schools is a reorganization of already existing schools. What if some of our public schools are encouraged to have more schools within a school where clusters of teachers and students are arranged together to more easily develop the charter school environment and atmosphere within the larger public school?

    Funds could stay within the school, some programs could be shared, small supportive communities of students, teachers, and parents could be developed, and the smaller schools within a school could also take advantage of the larger school community.

    Thanks for your consideration, Mary Ni

  10. While I live in your district, I am the Trustee of a Boston charter. Speaking strictly for myself, I believe the cap debate occurs because not all charters fulfill what I believe was the original intent of charters, namely to test innovative strategies and share the best ones with their fellow public schools. I am proud of my charter’s efforts in this regard and hope some day that every charter will do this. If all charters were driven to help improve public schools, the “us versus them” debate wouldn’t exist. Thus, I vote yes to raise the cap but only to those charters that work to help educate all students and not just the lucky ones who won the lottery.

  11. I have volunteered at the Boston prep charter school and the quality of both the teachers and educational program far exceeded that in the well-regarded public schools I attended. The students are held to a higher expectation for performance and at Boston prep they weave ethics and other elements of respect and integrity into the curriculum. They foster a culture where raising your hand and class participation is not only encouraged but cool. I fully support having more charter schools in Massachusetts and plan to send my daughter to one when she’s old enough. Please support a bill that will do so.

  12. I don’t want there to be more charter schools in Boston. I want there to be good quality public schools in all neighborhoods. Since my daughter has an IEP for autism I would not want her in a charter school that doesn’t have small inclusive classrooms. But on a more city wide viewpoint I worry about how schools in the poorer neighborhoods consistently are closed down and then charters take them over. It doesn’t seem fair to those neighborhoods that they get stuck with charters and can’t have as many good public schools.

  13. No expansion of charter schools. Lot’s of reasons, but the primary one is removing engaged parents from the traditional public school system.

  14. The original intent of Charters was to use them as an incubator to try new ways of learning. There have been some successes but also a lot of disappointment. The overall issue with adding charter seats is its affect on the funding of the public school. Right now the unequitable funding is truly giving BPS a disadvantage. We need to really look at what our public schools need to educate in this century. Make those investments and make sure we provide our city a world class education system that enhances our universities and commerce communities.

  15. Performance is measured on a very narrow range – the Mcas does not test science in some years, and does not test history, geography in any years. Schools have mindlessly increased the amount of time allotted to elementary math and to English, and have reduce the time in all other disciplines.

    The Mcas should be redesigned to be shorter, to randomize questions across test takers, and cover what is in the standards and never gets taught. Open questions should be more prevalent, and multiple choice questions fewer.

    The state should mandate that schools report time spent per discipline, and should normalize Mcas results to the number of hours spent in the subject.

    I don’t have a recommendation regarding the charter school cap. But it is raised, the bar should be raised for charter performance accordingly.

  16. SSpend the money to improve the quality oof neighborhood schools. Establishing nnew charter schools will negatively aeffect the neighborhood schools, as it wwould take money from the schools to pay ftuition for each student who transferred tto the charter school. Teachers in the ccharter schools lose benefits compared to teachers in the regular neighborhood sschools. In wealthier neighborhoods pparents and students are very satisfied with the neighborhood schools. The
    state and federal government have to spend more in the poorer communities to level the playing field.

  17. In Boston Charter Schools require parents to jump through some hoops to get in. They tend to attract more involved parents. They also tend to limit the students with high needs because the school does not have the programs or resources.
    It is no wonder that some schools do better on scores. I do not feel that expansion of charter schools is the answer.

  18. Like public schools, there are good and bad charter schools. Do the regulators and the public know which is which, aside from their students’ test scores? Are facilities adequate? Are teachers properly compensated and mentored? Is there enough financial transparency?

    This article from the Atlantic focuses on charter schools run by the Gülen organization in a number of states. (I don’t know if there are any in Mass.) But some of its findings are more general.

    I would like to know if any of the shortcomings described in the article pertain to charter schools here, or is Mass just better at overseeing and holding them accountable than other states.

    My gut feeling is not to expand charter schools until there are audits of them and more complete reporting from them.

  19. Senator Brownsberger,

    Thank you for taking comment on this very important issue! As a young adult in MA, I am lucky to be able to see education issues both from the perspective of a student and of a future parent. I have thought a lot about charter schools – the promise the give to families of good outcomes and college readiness, but also the detrimental effect they’re having on our traditional public schools – and I know how complicated the issue is. I, too, have seen that parents want more choices but also desire the intimacy of a neighborhood school.

    I do not think we should raise the charter cap in MA, because raising the cap will let charter schools go too far. Having some charter schools in Boston, to serve students who thrive in them is okay; but charter expansion will be successful at the expense of other unique schools, such as Madison Park Technical and Vocational High School, which also provide a necessary service to students. If school funding and building availability was unlimited, charter schools should be allowed to expand like any other business. But not any other business has the privilege of accessing public funding. This privilege comes with a responsibility to not ruin Boston’s public schools, a responsibility which I’m afraid the charter schools have not always taken seriously. The charter approach – focus on college, “no excuses” education, harsh discipline – is not for every student, and the more public schools that close as a result of funding going to charter schools, the more we’re actually narrowing the choices that families have. Particularly children with special needs or English language learners have suffered from charter expansion in the past.

    School should not be treated as a commodity, but as a public good. The future voters and workers in Massachusetts should be educated in a system that gives them all a chance.

    Thank you again for your request for comment,
    Aja Watkins

  20. No one has explained:

    1. No one ever gave any rationale for splitting one public school system into two separate systems.

    2. If some tactics, strategies, and techniques work better, then those approaches should be adopted for all schools, not just some.

    3. Any evaluation of district schools vs. charter schools has to acknowledge that charter schools pick and choose the cream of the crop students, whereas district schools must accept all students.

    4. There’s no justification for any public school system that gets to reject public school students.

    5. Other states have had disastrous results when chartering separate schools funded with public dollars, so MA should have no charter schools unless there is a complete set of safeguards to prevent that.

    1. The rationale is simple: public schools have failed to educate our children in spite of significant increases in public education funds.
      The tactics and strategies start freedom from unions and union rules that are designed to protect teachers and not to educate children. It would be nice if all schools could achieve freedom from unions, but it’s unlikely.
      Charter schools are not free to pick the best students. Students are chosen by fair methods. Some are rejected because there are not enough charter schools.
      Yes, avoid disastrous results such as the abandonment of children to the existing public schools.

  21. What has happened previously has nothing to do with what the impact of more charters will have in towns like Watertown and Arlington and those in the western part of the state. Funds are not being added to education budgets to create more charters – the money comes out of the shrinking budget of public school systems, already short on funds. As important as speaking to parents in your district who have children in Boston public schools – speak with Boston public school parents in other parts of Boston. Just as you are supporting later hours for Boston restaurants, just as you supported the Olympics – you have little to lose by going against the wishes of those people who are afraid of creating a two tier system. As a member of the Boston NAACP, I stand with them.

  22. I do not favor expansion of charter schools as such an approach takes the focus off of, and funds away from, quality public education for all without regard to placement or intellectual capacity.

  23. I am deeply distrustful of the charter school movement. It has been surrounded by magical claims that importing the methods of the market will fix our problems. Some charter schools work, others, not so much.

    Meanwhile, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is an assault on first rate public education for all.

    That being said, we should welcome experimentation. It seems to me we should be looking for a system where schools (including public schools) are allowed to function as charter schools for some fixed period of time, say five or ten years, and then be folded back into the public school system, adopting the successful innovations.

    We can’t walk away from the public commitment to public education.

  24. I wish those who believe that charter schools are not affecting traditional public school classrooms could see the picture from my point of view as a Boston Public Schools high school English/ESL teacher. This year in West Roxbury, I teach classes with 80 percent high-risk students. That number rises every year as the charters expand.
    Our school was almost closed last year due to budget cuts because BPS is losing students. In ESL, 95 percent of our students at West Roxbury Academy pass the MCAS on their first try. Despite our record, the district was willing to close us down until students and parents intervened.
    Charters are not taking students who need extra help. They are taking the students who have well-developed learning and literacy skills they honed in public schools, and charters are sending back to BPS the students who do not score well on tests. Then they claim victory on test scores!
    Charters cost us in our classroom budget and our transportation budget as well. Charter schools take our students and then they take the buses away from the students we have. Money is so tight our school could not even get a yellow bus for an after-school tutoring program last year to help struggling students. We always had the after-school bus in the past. The closest MBTA bus stops 30 times in the 4.5 miles from our school to Forest Hills, so without school transportation the students’ commutes can be prohibitive. This year we have one after-school yellow bus for struggling students, but the schedule is not the most reliable.
    Oversight of charters is more of a problem than most people think. Even though a charter school’s license is renewed every five years, that renewal process does not mean that charters are easily closed when wrongdoing is suspected. It took ten years to close down the Robert M. Hughes Academy in Springfield Yet from the beginning there were many questions on spending and appropriations at the school, as well as later proof that there was cheating on the MCAS.
    Also, parents are at the mercy of a private board to redress their complaints when they have problems with the decisions made at a charter school. In post-Katrina New Orleans the charters have taken over the district and declared victory with supposedly higher test scores. They fired the entire teaching staff of the district and brought in teachers from outside the city. Today contradictory evidence of their “victory” is making its way through the propaganda. The school standards themselves are revealed to be among the lowest in the nation, according to the New York Times. And … “There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.” (The Myth of the New Orleans Makeover, NYTimes Aug. 22)

    Now this from former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert: “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.
    “Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow. They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.
    “None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous. While originally conceived a way for teachers to seek new ways to reach the kids who were having the most difficult time, the charter school system instead ended up leaving behind the most disadvantaged youngsters.”

    Bob Herbert, an opinion columnist for the New York Times from 1993 to 2011, is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a public policy think tank in New York City. This article is an adapted excerpt from Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America (Doubleday), out Oct. 7.
    As teachers, we are asking the Legislature to let the public decide the charter school issue directly in a referendum. There is a growing awareness that these charters are forming mostly in the poorest districts of the nation, making big promises they can’t keep, and profiting off of the most vulnerable in education through land acquisition at public expense and through expensive contracting licenses without the same high level of oversight standards required at public schools.
    Please do not lift the cap. Please let the public decide.
    Thank you,
    Dolores Wood

    1. Ms. Wood, thank you for pinpointing public policy and operational issues with charters and their impact on people like you in the trenches. I hope Will takes careful note of all you have said.

  25. I do not support charter schools for two reasons: (1) charter schools drain the budgets of public schools who pay for students opting to attend charters; and (2) charter schools have a demographic that does not represent the general public. Specifically, they have been reported to cherry pick their students by expelling those who do not score high enough on standardized tests to make their teachers appear successful. Charter schools are the scourge of public education in the United States.

  26. The unfortunate framing of the question (“should we allow more charter schools thereby defunding regular public schools’) takes focus from the critical issue of whether our state is willing to pay for high expectations for all students.
    As a parent and Scl Com member (tho’ not in Boston proper), my experience tells me that either we foot the bill for universal education, or we accept a 2-tier system that allows better-off families more choice.
    Given prop 21/2, I reluctantly agree that charter school caps should be lifted …as long as charters are accessible by all. And as long as they do NOT drain funds from public systems. That said, I wish teacher unions would adjust their perspectives so charter schools might not be such an attractive alternative. The issues mentioned above about the higher percent of special needs students in public schools are certainly valid. BUT is is also true that it is nearly impossible to manage substandard teachers in public schools under current contracts…and parents definitely are affected by this, and the perception it creates.

  27. Please resist further establishment of charter schools which only destroy the public education system by denying them funding and erode teachers’ unions (their real purpose).

  28. As I understand it, the problem with charter schools is that they can be more selective than public schools. Therefore, public schools end up with the kids with learning disabilities and behavioral problems that the charter schools won’t accept, and the public schools are overwhelmed with learning disable students and little funding. Also, as a union member, I would be concerned because charter school teachers are not unionized.

  29. I support the expansion of charter schools because I believe that the teachers unions are the biggest obstacle to education reform and improvement and charters offer an alternative to parents in lower income communities for a quality education they cannot get in the public schools. My experience in Watertown is that the union leaders are usually some of the worst teachers and that tenure serves mainly to protects the teachers who should not be in the profession. Basing teacher pay on seniority also skews school budgets from rewarding quality teachers to rewarding only based on longevity.

    Charter schools get education out from under the yoke of the teachers unions and should be allowed to expand even if it destabilizes the existing school systems for a while. Their success will hopefully shed light on the problems in the public schools by comparison and as public perception increasingly points to the unions as the problem, will force change and reforms within them.

  30. I think charter schools take money away from regular public schools without serving the whole student population. I am not in favor of any charter schools.

  31. I am a retired public school teacher from the suburbs. I believe in public education but also in competition to inspire us to be better. My concern is that schools cannot adequately make up for lack of family, parental involvement and education. Until we address early education for all children, birth to K, and education on parenting ( eg reading to children), urban schools will continue to fail. Another major initiative needs to be family planning so low income people do not have more children than they can parent and support. All of this comes before action on charter schools.

  32. As an educator, homeowner, business owner, and parent of young children in your district I love the idea of more students who can’t afford other schooling opportunities having access to innovative models of education (supported by all our best research in the field) that Charters often adopt. However, I think our public schools could get closer to these ideals of modern progressive education with better funding. Currently the problems with schools in Watertown is our lack of budget to deal with an ancient infrastructure of buildings and properties that can’t support our students. Top on that the enormous amount of money pouring out of district for specilaized education that could be better supported by the State. I would prefer any monies that would go to broadening the charter system going instead directly to the special education supports, infrastructure grants, and incentive funds for innovative interventions like longer school days (Unions need to grow up on this issue, but we need to actually PAY teachers what they are worth for a longer day!) etc.
    Thank you for voicing our concerns on the floor and with your colleagues.

  33. I do not support charter schools because I think they take resources away from public schools, and they promote unequal opportunity.

    In my view, the problems with education have more to do with parents than the schools. We need more support for low-income families, including universal pre-K and more afternoon programs for kids. In France I was told that kids stay at school all day. This makes so much sense. Schools are supposed to be a community resource. I don’t understand why the school day ends so early. It just makes it hard for parents and kids.

    Kids learn better when there is less stress and violence in the home. This is why we need to raise the minimum wage and invest in good jobs.

    I think too many people blame the public school system for failures, but in many communities it works fine. Why is that? The answer is not more charters.

  34. The charitable take on the origin of charter schools would be to say that they were created to experiment in ways that could lead to benefits for the general public school population.

    If we accept this charitable take, then we can draw a few conclusions.

    (1) There is no reason why charter schools should function outside of a district. An arts academy or science academy functions differently than a general, college prep school. A vocational school does as well. If there is experimentation, it should be within the system to benefit the system.

    (2) Charter schools should be non-expansionary by nature, and charter “chains” should not exist. If the goal is experimentation to help the general school population, then there should be no need to expand the charter schools. Anything good that they have learned from their “experimentation” could be passed on to the general school population, thus rendering them obsolete.

    (3) Charter schools should be held to the same standards of transparency, oversight, and democratic accountability that “public schools” are. Their populations should reflect the wider school populations as well. If this is not the case, then the “experimentation” yields little in the way of replicability.

    Unfortunately, charter schools rarely operate in these ways and instead siphon money from the broader public school system and weaken the concept of “public goods” that we need to be reinforcing and celebrating.

    Our goal should be to offer high-quality public education to all students. The concept of “choice” is rendered incoherent by this goal (with the exception only existing in the case of vocational/specialization-focused schools). Charter schools are a distraction from this goal.

    1. Jonathan, you said it better than I was going to. Add to that what others have said about cherry-picking students, special education,family involvement and learning readiness, and we wouldn’t see so many public schools overwhelmed with children who have already fallen behind and spending so much time for discipline and remediation. Charter schools should not be allowed to eat our lunch.

  35. I am in full support of expanding the charter cap. Many high-performing charter networks, such as Edward Brooke, Roxbury Prep, UP Education, Excel, and KIPP provide exceptionally better programming and education to students that do many traditional public schools in Boston. It is silly and unfair to restrict proven charter providers from expanding to meet demand and giving students the education they deserve. Over 30,000 students are on charter school wait lists–what other proof point is necessary that the families of many urban communities, Boston included, want greater access to the strong educational opportunities proven providers consistently deliver? Would this type of restriction–holding back successful providers while propping up consistent under-performers–happen in any other type of industry? Of course not. Funds should be allocated to schools that are doing the best job educating students. I encourage you, Senator, to visit any one of the schools from the networks I listed above–all are extremely receptive to outside visits–and then visit a traditional public school in Boston. You will be amazed at the difference. It is not fair and unwise to make this decision without visiting each set of schools and seeing the difference yourself.

    1. Charter schools seem good but they don’t keep the students who enroll. Viewed in this light they are a failure, often with drop out rates surpassing their host district.

  36. I am concerned about the increasing challenge to the constitutionality of charter schools, which operate outside of review of any elected or appointed government agency such as a school board.

    At least one recent state supreme court decision (in Oregon or Washington state, I believe) has found that charter schools are not constitutionally public schools, and thus not entitled to state funding, as they are not subject to supervision and the authority of elected officials.

  37. I would like to add my voice to Dolores and others, who have given heartfelt testimony as to the damage charter schools are doing.

    I am concerned not only about the diversion of funds and transportation infrastructure, but about the disciplinary model in charter schools. It seems to be often the case, from my reading, that charter schools impose a structure of discipline that in some cases is consciously designed to provide a paper trail to justify the exclusion of students who might drag the charters’ scores down. I used to be attracted by charters in concept; but in practice, they seem to do more harm than good. Please oppose an increase in the cap.

  38. I am a Boston parent. I do NOT want charter schools to expand here. Charter schools do not reflect the student populations of their host district (WB’s report here is misleading).

  39. HI Will

    Both my older children attended the MATCH charter on Comm Ave near Packards Corner. My older daughter chose it over the exam school she was accepted by. The number of parents wanting charters way exceeds the number of slots so an expansion would be terrific.

  40. Raise the cap on Charter Schools. There is demand for more seats at Charter Schools because they are doing a great job and should be available to any and all parents/students. They are able to educate without spending huge amounts of unproductive time on negotiations and (sorry) politics. All students should not be held to the same level of education in the name of public schools.

    1. By this line of reasoning, we should privatize public works departments too, because of unions and “politics.” Sorry, but politics is how things happen in the public sphere. And if we diminish the public sphere, whoever takes over its functions will be less transparent and accountable (i.e. corporate). There will still be politics but you just won’t hear about them.

  41. From a very basic perspective, competition is good. It seems our educational system has become less flexible, and hence, less effective in preparing the next generation to succeed in our ever more global environment. Besides the impact on the teachers unions, it is not clear to me why we would not encourage more Charter Schools.

  42. Why Charter Schools? Why can’t the assumed benefits of Charter Schools be found in public schools? While not a current parent, as a teacher with 34 years experience in public and private schools, my concerns are valid. Society expects the best from schools. Perhaps whatever professional freedom Charter Schools have in establishing hours, curriculum, standards should also be given to public schools.In addition, the Charter dropout rate is important to note. Public schools do not have the option of allowing such dropouts.
    I was fortunate enough to work in a fine system nearby with a principal who recognized the skills of his staff and allowed us to do what we knew was ‘right’ in our teaching, in spite of commercial programs purchased by the system that were obviously not developmentally appropriate. He would call our curriculum and methods “pilot programs” and give us his complete support. The results were always excellent.
    The current pressure on public schools with testing, inappropriate demands on teachers that ignore all we know about how children learn makes teaching nearly intolerable. Finally the most serious component of a child’s success is the home life and parenting.
    Tthe basic question remains: if Charter Schools show successful results in student achievement,analysis of why and how should guide decisions that can be applied to public schools rather than lead to more Charters that draw off funding. Giving public schools more freedom with the same oversight that Charters experience may well be a financially and educationally wise decision that benefits all students and teachers. Attention to public schools rather than more Charters is vital.

  43. My issue is that the money does not follow the student. So when the student does not make it in a charter school, the money does not follow that child back to district. Why not make a monthly payment to the charter, and if a student no longer attends, the district does not pay. That seems equitable.

  44. Thank you for asking — I hope the cap on charters in Boston and statewide is kept as low as possible. As a Boston parent, I saw how few choices are available for the average student. Diverting funds to charters only narrows these choices more.

    The tendency in Boston has been to create lots of small schools – pilots, charters and various types of small “boutique” type schools. My comments are based on my own family’s experience with a pilot school, and many anecdotes from parents with children at pilot, charter and similar boutique schools. There is a strong tendency for these small schools to be narrowly focused and to be constantly striving for positive external appearances and statistics.

    Some students will do well, while those who do not fit in will be excluded from the start, or pushed out. Students who don’t fit in are often treated harshly by staff and teachers. It can be confusing to hear reports from parents — one parent says their child had a great experience while another parent says that the their child was bullied by staff and teachers. But it becomes clearer when you hear from a family with more than one child, with the first sailing through school happily and a subsequent child treated harshly by the same school.

    I’ve wondered for a long time whether it is inevitable that charter and pilot schools would be so narrow? Probably yes — I think that the structure and the quest for profits and “reputation” create a built-in incentive to emphasize external appearances over real quality.

    As you look at the statistics from charter schools, you can see odd patterns — look at mobility rates, differences in class size from the younger to older grades, and at the mismatches in demographics between the charters and the city as a whole.

    Thank you for the chance to comment — I’m sure you are hearing lots of opinions!


  45. As a Boston resident and BPS parent, I’d like to thank you for your attention to this complicated issue. I’d like to address a couple of points regarding the statement that, “Charter schools are just public schools that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education licenses and supervises… charter schools are subject to higher accountability than district schools– they have to be reauthorized by DESE every five years.”
    The question of whether charter schools are public schools is still open to debate, despite the fact that they call themselves public in most public realms. We know, however, that in Washington state they’re not considered public. And in multiple cases across the country, charters themselves have argued that they’re not public (in NY re. audits, in Chicago re. labor laws, in CA re. first amendment rights).
    But the biggest red flag for me re. their status as public is in the way that they’re governed, a model that does not seem at all public. Charter school boards are privately appointed, and have little accountability to the communities they serve. They are mostly comprised of members from outside the school communities who have little experience in education, though they have lots of experience in finance and real estate development. Boards rarely include parents or actually community members and some cases schools have outright refused to have parents on the board. Boards often meet at times and in places inconvenient to parents or community members and in most charters there are no mechanisms for parents to redress grievances through these boards. (To redress school-based decisions, parents must go directly to the state board.)
    On the other hand, in public schools, school committees or school boards are made up of publicly appointed or elected members. They are accountable either directly to the public or the mayor that appoints them. Parent/public voice is valued via mandated parent councils and site councils. And parents can access information and share input about district decisions via local school committee meetings. It is a publicly accessible and publicly accountable system.
    Regarding the statement that charters are subject to a degree of “higher accountability” because they must be reauthorized every five years, a review of the records of charter schools shows that almost no charters have been closed due to poor performance; most have been closed because of gross negligence or financial malfeasance. The state DESE can barely manage to oversee 400 different districts it already oversees and adding more charter schools means adding more individual districts to their list.
    Finally, we know that parents across most of the state highly value their school public systems and the accessibility, accountability and sustainability they provide. Though parents do and will make individual choices in Boston to send their children to charter schools when their district school is a poor choice (though not as willingly as many would think… see page 8 of, I believe it’s a mistake to think that we don’t want what other districts want: a strong publicly funded, publicly governed and publicly accountable system of schools.
    Thanks again for your work on this!

    1. Thanks, Megan. Every state is different in how they define charters, but I’m hearing from this statement that the charter boards you have dealt with are inaccessible — that is an important datapoint. Thank you.

      Also a good point that the state has limited bandwidth to oversee charters — it is clear that DESE has a lot on its plate.

  46. Will,
    As usual, you have provided an excellent summary of the specific issue in question. However, it would be helpful to know something about the track record of existing charter schools. Among the students who have completed at least the last 4 years of grades 1-8 at those charter elementary schools with at least 10 years of history, did a higher proportion of those students who go on to complete high school, and did they enter high school with higher test scores? If so, tolerating some “destabilizing” of the existing, broken system might be justifiable. It is naïve to think that what works at charter schools can be transferred to conventional public schools because one of the crucial differences is the fact that parents Choose to send their child to a charter school. Hence, the charter school population is a self-selected group of students with more committed parents; parents who create a home environment more conducive to learning. You can’t legislate parental commitment, but you can provide havens where such parents can send their children to learn.

  47. Senator, your “fact” sheet is very biased, disingenuous and misleading.

    Have you looked at the charter school numbers for SPED and ELL students? Have you looked at the rate at which the student body shrinks each year as they drive out the low-scoring students? They throw out as much as half (or more, depending on the number of grades they serve) of the starting numbers.

    Have you looked at the incredibly high rates of suspension — which is known to drive students and parents out of school?

    Are you familiar with their draconian behavior codes, which demand that children act like obedient robots, who, when they get to college, passively wait to be told what to learn?

    Don’t you know how many of their teaching staff are untrained and inexperienced Teach for America and Boston Teachers Residency temps?

    Don’t you know that they cumulate lists of parents who apply, or even who ask for information, forever, to pad the “waiting list” — but seldom if ever call in “waiting” students to backfill seats of students they’ve pushed out?

    Don’t you know how much financial fraud has been discovered in charters, which run like private corporate fiefdoms awash in public and private money?

    Don’t you know how the university “studies,” funded by charter promoters like the Boston Foundation and Gates and Broad and Walton and NewSchools Venture Fund and other corporate promoters, have been rigged and misrepresented to favor charters? The Boston Foundation’s 2013 report, “Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness: The Effects on College Preparation, Attendance and Choice,” buries among its glowing statistics an astounding statement that is cleverly omitted from the Summary and Conclusions: “Does charter attendance also increase high school graduation rates? Perhaps surprisingly, the estimates in Table 6 suggest not, or at least, not be enough for a statistically significant result.” Isn’t that something those eager would-be charter parents might like to know? Isn’t that something YOU should know?

    Don’t you know that charters are a big tax-credit boondoggle and a big hedge fund investment vehicle?

    Don’t you know that suburban communities don’t want charters because they have all the resources needed to make their schools as good as they want — which is easy because they serve self-selected segregated parents and well-off, relatively easy-to-teach students who speak English, get enough to eat, and have family and educational support systems, including paid tutors if needed?

    It is only in center-city communities that charters can pull their hoax — limit their enrollment, use the lottery system to draw in the most engaged parents and advantaged kids, and then, with impunity, throw/push/drive/counsel out each year the kids who don’t “fit” the schools’ single need: high MCAS scores. Sometimes it is exposed:

    Do you know that only a relative handful of black boys graduate annually from the five most excellent and stellar Boston charter high schools — aggravating, not closing, the “achievement gap”?

    Yes, you thoughtfully oppose the wholesale destruction of the Boston public schools implicit in the Governor’s bill. But you support a “reasonable” annual increase which will in time accomplish the same thing. Every charter creates a new “waiting list” to wave around at public hearings, ginning up false demand for more. Every limit has been only a stepping stone to more charters. It’s the old “how to cook a frog” story: turn up the heat slowly so they don’t realize they should jump out of the pot.

    And your oh-by-the-way championing of Boston parents’ wish for “good neighborhood schools,” as if it is some who-wouldn’t-want-that goal, unrelated to charters, is just an indirect way of supporting the shut-down of neighborhood public schools and handing their buildings to charters. Which is exactly the Mayor’s plan.

    The regulations you cite are just words on paper, and have nothing to do with reality. You should know better. I think you do.

    You are using your parent outreach capabilities not to “listen” and not to teach, and not to encourage critical thinking by parents — if that were your goal, you would cite evidence on both sides of the story — but to spread charter propaganda to desperate parents who trust you. Then you can say, “Look, I’m just listening to the parents. They want more “choice,” they want more “excellence,” and how can we not let them have it?” I think this is cynical, and you owe the people you serve something better.

    There is a lot at stake here. Public education is the foundation of a democratic society. You are helping to undermine it. And that is why I, who am not a parent of a Boston student, have standing to speak as a “stakeholder” (in the management consultant lingo); these children are all our children, and our future.

  48. Though my children have long since graduated from the Belmont public schools I know a few people from other areas who have their children inn charter schools. The parents seem to have very frequent contact with the faculty, who are dedicated to watching and guiding the students in their smaller classes. Charter schools are a necessary way to help kids get a good start. Since faulty in low-performing schools have tenure it would take many years to get those schools to a high enough level. Children lucky enough to have parents who care about educational quality should have the opportunity of a better chance.

  49. I was an educator in the Belmont Public Schools and I am a huge supporter of a public education. I would not feel comfortable supporting what the DESE is proposing. I would, however, consider an expansion with more reasonable limits. I have seen projects such as the Horace Mann Charter Schools work very successfully and I do feel we need to be open-minded. I have had Boston students who were not a good fit for our suburban schools for a variety of reasons find success in a smaller charter school environment. Hopefully we all share the same goal, seeing students find success at whatever school they attend and to do this we need to provide a variety of settings and approaches that are done thoughtfully and not to the detriment of the overall school budget.

  50. If you live in a town with good schools your kids are fine. If you are wealthy, and you don’t like the district schools you send your kid to private school.But many poor parents are sending their kids to schools which are failing them and they don’t have any choice.

    In Boston’s district schools, only 31% of 4th graders are proficient in English; only 38% proficient in math. This has been so for decades.

    The solution is legislation that helps the districts schools improve and an increase in the charter cap in districts that need them, so parents have some hope.

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