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. I do not support expansion of charter schools. There are many issues within Boston Public Schools regarding funding and creating more charter schools creates opportunity for the issues in BPS to be “pushed under the rug”. There will always be students who need to attend public schools. There will always be higher numbers of ELLs and SPED students in public schools. I think Boston needs a major reorganization of its public school system, yes. But I do not think charters are the answer. We need to acknowledge the real problems like kids being bused across the city every day, like students on free and reduced lunch not receiving satisfying meals, like limitations on technology and school supplies, like lack of counseling resources, before we can begin to even dream of another cent being put into an outside cause.

  2. Dear Representative Brownsberger:
    I write in opposition to the expansion of the number of charter school charters.

    The combination of ideology and distressing lack knowledge about the history of education has led me to distrust the claims of charter school advocates. The clear record of abuse of the public trust on education by many corporate charter school providers seems to have inspired a model, even exemplary, law here in Massachusetts as outlined in your communication.

    I decided to do some reading on outcomes and have spent the most time comparing the CREDO study at Stanford funded by the Walton Foundation with the Mass Teachers Assoc CEEP study. While both have limitations and possibly bias, I was struck by how the CREDO study only provided abstract statistics, never the raw data; and provided little context for evaluating conclusions. The CEEP study gave the raw data and the full thought process to their conclusions.

    My conclusion is that charter schools do not provide a social benefit that justifies the profound damage to public school system quality and stability.

    Sincerely,
    Ed Richard
    Belmont

  3. I am a Boston resident, and I anticipate having school-age children in upcoming years. It is my hope that investments will be made in our BPS schools rather than investing in charter schools. Please help move us toward making the BPS a world-class/model urban school district for the kids I want to send there–a district not just for any kids my wife and I have but a district that provides a quality education for ALL students.

  4. Thank you for the opportunity, Will,

    I am against privatizing public goods like education. Charter schools often make bottom-line decisions that involve pushing away disabled students, who may require more resources. The current situation with charter schools is much like the insurance industry before mandatory pooled coverage. “Creaming” the cheapest customers creates inequality and should not be promoted by the state, which must be for everyone.

  5. Dear Rep Brownsberger,

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I am a BPS parent and a BPS teacher. My kids’ schools (my two kids have attended a total of six BPS schools — one graduated last year) have seen their funding cut and cut over the past 14 years, and opportunities that are regularly afforded kids in suburban districts, such as athletics, arts, and electives, are in short supply. As a teacher, I talk to many families who have left the BPS for Charter Schools, and over and over again, those kids who are “difficult,” who don’t do school easily the first time, who are wiggly, or oppositional, or outspoken, or impulsive, are made so miserable through retention and suspension, that they leave. It’s simply not fair and not quality educational practice.

    One of the great strengths of American public schools is that they are traditionally a level ground for all kids, and that has increased in recent decades. No longer do we let immigrant kids drop out and ship kids with disabilities off to hospitals. We have high expectations for all, because that is an ideal of our nation and our society. If we want schools that educate all kids together, we can’t create a semi-autonomous system of semi-private schools. Our kids need and deserve a strong and well-funded public school system with transparent and democratic governance.

    Please do not lift the cap and cause my school system to lose any more than the $121 Million we currently lose to charter schools. It’s killing our schools, and crushing the dreams of too many of those kids who don’t fit in to the expectations of schooling too readily.

  6. I can see no reasonable long-term goal for charter schools given our constitutional responsibility to provide equitable and sufficient education to all our students. Charters are a distraction from the difficult and expensive work of providing a good education in all public schools. If charters have any benefits such as smaller classes, fewer regulations; clean, safe and updated facilities with adequate resources, technology and staffing, it is criminal to deny all public schools the same advantages. Surely we can’t tell parents that it is impossible to provide good educations in our public schools. It is not impossible, just expensive and difficult.

    Beyond concern for the education of our students, I am alarmed by the law’s requirement that charters are accredited by an appointed, not elected, state board that is legally barred from considering the resources of sending communities during that accreditation process. The only other situation in which I have ever heard of a mandate not to consider the resources of the community is when making plans for students with special education services. Those students have an entitlement under the federal IDEA law. What makes charter schools deserving of such consideration? Local elected school boards have absolutely no power to audit charters or monitor their pedagogy and treatment of students. I question the constitutionality of a law that forces communities to give away their tax money to abide by the decisions of a state-level appointed board that is compelled to ignore local concerns. As charters continue to infiltrate middle class districts, I expect their constitutionality to be brought to question.

  7. Dear Rep. Brownsberger,
    A couple of years ago, I attended a forum on Charter Schools. There was a Board member of one of these schools, and he loved his Charter School so that he could fire teachers at any time. No help for the teacher to make her/him better. Just out the door. Charter School for this parent was private school for this children using state money.
    There is always an undercurrent to the Charter School movement. The Right Wing want to dismantle our public school system because of the dollars and cents private Charter schools will glean from the School budget.

    I want every child to have a good education. No Us vs Them. Charters are far from perfect. Because they do not answer to a community, some of the practices like weeding out students who are SPED and will bring down scores are “encourages to leave.” There is a high turnover rate of teachers. Early charter philosophy was three years and out. The longer a teacher stays at a job, the salary should go up. No raises. It was all about the profit.

    Too me, Charters is the new separate and a new equal.
    Keep the cap. Public schools have absorbed many cuts. Money should be directed to the public schools not more Charter schools.

    Thank you for this forum. So many thoughtful comments.

    Lois Jacobs

  8. We certainly do not have all the answers as to how to deliver first class education to our children. Charter Schools are a laboratory from which we can learn — if the public schools would only be open to sharing ideas and strategies. I think we should raise the cap.

  9. I’m not a parent. I see their point.
    What happened to the PTA? Wasn’t that an organization that brought both parents and teachers together for the education of children.
    – I’m with the parents on this issue.

  10. Ever since the Edison Project and Channel 1, the movement to privatize public education has been ongoing. Charter schools were originally intended to develop new, creative approaches to teaching and learning; they were never intended to replace public schools. But we keep hearing the chant: “Our education system is broken” (Melissa Gates of the Gates Foundation), an unexamined statement that has served to propel the charter school movement. These schools can cherry pick their students; public schools must accept every child. These reformers are not educators. They are introducing corporate organization into education in ways that have little to do with children’s learning. The hedge funds are salivating at the chance to pull in profits. Let’s invest our money in public education, especially in urban areas where schools have been neglected. Public education, like public libraries, is a crucial aspect of the “commons,” the community-centered activities and services that everyone can participate in. I say cap the number of charter schools; reinvest seriously in public schools, facilities, buildings, faculties, children.

  11. Will, thanks for the thoughtful framing of the issues. I am very much in favor of expanding charter schools in Boston. If you go visit one of the really good charter schools, like Roxbury Prep, you might be too. They take the same kids that go to the public schools, put them in uniforms and provide them with excellent teaching and a welcoming, safe, supportive atmosphere that involves the whole family, and they turn out happy, educated kids. Charter schools do not drain off the best kids, as some detractors say. They are part of the lottery. I read all of the arguments that preceded my comment. I acknowledge that there are some charters that don’t do as good a job, but that’s not a reason to restrict all charters. That’s a reason to support the best performing charters and take a look at why the underperforming charters aren’t working as well. It’s also unrealistic to say we should abolish charters and put the money back into the public school system. The whole reason that charters came about was the poor performance, one size fits all approach, of the public school system. There is absolutely no reason to think that if we abolish charter schools the money will magically appear to fix the public school system. There are too few good public schools in Boston; we have to create better schools, and charter schools is the way to accomplish this, in my opinion.

  12. This is a complicated question mainly because of the funding situation and limits on student acceptances. I don’t see why we can’t keep education public and open to all students without resorting to private charter schools or by siphoning off the more motivated families out of the neighborhood schools. Why can’t we use the Horace Mann models to do school experimentation and then apply lessons learned to all public schools instead of setting up a dynamic where private charter schools are taking sorely needed money away from the rest of the public school system? If you set up a system where one school functions by taking money from the other system (but that system ends up handling the most expensive special needs kids) then that is not going to work over the long term. We still need to educate all of the children. It seems to me our focus should be on coaching teachers to be the best they can be and make sure kids get the right learning program for them instead of pitting school systems against externally governed schools.

  13. Dear Representative Brownsberger,

    Thank you for asking. I am a public school teacher in Newton and a parent of two boys in the Boston public schools, I’d urge you not just to keep the cap, but to move to close failing charters.

    The practical reason is obvious: nearly everyone I know who is a BPS parent has seen his or her school lose resources and staff over the last five years. At the same time, brand new charters open up in new buildings. I don’t begrudge any Boston resident a shot at a beautiful, fully funded school. But we can’t help all of our kids by pitting them against each other, which is what is happening.

    In the end, I am bothered by much of what I see in charters. They purport to be public schools and promote their successes, but I see little honest reflection of their failures. Pacific Rim touts its graduation rate, but says nothing of its failure to enroll any ELL students. 30% of BPS is ELL.

    City on a Hill has a 40% suspension rate. MATCH has 157 full time teachers; 12 of them are over 33. These conditions would be anathema in every high performing suburb in the state, but they are models for how to educate our poorer, darker children?

    BPS is far from perfect, but it offers a variety of successful public schools with lengthy waitlists. Many parents move, pay for private school, or apply to charters only after they fail to get the public school they want. I’d suggest that expanding or duplicating these schools, though difficult, is a far more sensible way to proceed.

  14. Others have expressed this sentiment already, but I’ll say as a perplexed parent of Kindergarten-aged kids, that I perceive at least that there may be a tendency for charter schools to cherry-pick the most motivated students (and most motivated families) and drop out the ones that can’t keep up. As a theoretical laboratory of innovation, it sounds great. As a means of pulling funding away from desperately underfunded school programs, not so much. Having said that, I also find myself wishing that there was a better public school method to help nurture and develop high achievers, in addition to bringing up the challenged ones.

  15. Thank you for your support of charter schools. they have made a huge difference in the lives of many, many families across Massachusetts one the past 20 years in large part due to the leadership of people like you.

  16. As a working parent, I very much WANT buses. There is no option for dropping my daughter off at 9:30 and picking her up at 3:30 as I am away at work from 7-5. I don’t know what wealthy parents you speak with, but 74% of our students live below the poverty level and one assumes that means their parents are also working at least one job. The whole fantasy of dropping the kids off and then baking cookies until it’s time to pick them up again is a remnant from a bygone era. Working parents want high-quality schools with affordable extended learning time and safe transportation options.

  17. When an acquaintance of mine received an autism diagnosis for her son, she was told by her charter school that he would be better off at BPS, where they had the resources and experience to help him. It may have been said with the best of intentions, and it may be true, but it shows that her charter is making no effort to accommodate special needs kids, and is bumping them back to BPS. While taking the public funds that should be going towards our BPS schools. If we expand charters, we are going to end up with a two-tier school system, where high-performing kids, kids whose parents advocate for them, and native speakers receive one kind of education, and everyone else is put into the public schools. It is not only offensive to anyone who believes in the promise of public education, an egalitarian society, and that all children are created equal; it is detrimental to our students’ growth and development. Our family opted IN to BPS because we believe that being around people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse abilities and talents and beliefs, is important for the development of empathy and character, and that it makes us stronger and smarter.

  18. Senator Brownsberger,

    My 3 kids (ages 8, 10, and 12) have all attended BPS schools since they were 4 years old. Something like 3% of students in the state attend charter schools. Whatever expansion of the charter cap may occur, the vast majority of our children will continue to attend public schools. So whatever time and resources are being applied to charter schools, please spend a corresponding amount of time and resources to improving the education of the 90+% of our children.

    And maybe the # of charter schools should be tied to the State’s fully funding the reimbursement of public school districts. Fully reimburse cities and towns, create more charters. Can’t do that? Then maybe we should have fewer charter schools.

  19. I’ve tried to ask the question of politicians so many ways: Besides lower teacher salaries, avoidance of the union and the ability to send “under-performing” kids back to the public school, what are the lessons learned from charter schools, that cannot be applied to public schools since the money is public money? I can never get an answer from charter school proponents. I do know at least one family who loved charter schools for their three oldest kids, but were shocked to be left out in the cold when their youngest, who was fidgety and not really classroom-ready was not welcome. I’d love for the creative and innovative teachers at my son’s BPS -5 school to be able to do their work without having to set up a gofundme page for everything they’d like to try. A strong, well-paid and supported teaching staff CAN help all kids to learn in the way that those kids learn best. Bring the money back to schools that serve ALL kids. Charter schools are adding to a have/have-not education system and are a drain on the budget. The cap should NOT be lifted.

  20. I am in favor of the expansion of Charter Schools in the State and in Boston and I think most other parents would be as well for the reasons you cite above as to why parents prefer this alternative: proximity and accountability.

    The huge city public school model with its top heavy administrative structure (and salaries!), bloated per student budget, beholden to the patently political agenda of the teachers union, is a failure. The “standards” they represent are constantly downgraded to mask this failure, and the students they “graduate” are illiterate and are not even schooled in our system of government and its history — community organizing, “diversity”, and Howard Zinn’s America Sucks textbooks are of greater importance I guess.

    The best schools are locally controlled and teach to the standards that are important to that community: to the extent that education is centralized to the state and national levels, it suffers. One of the constant complaints one hears in public schools, from the schools, is that parents are not involved: well, why should they be involved when the schools will not allow them any substantive input into their children’s education such as what courses are taught, by whom, and what texts are used. Parents are relegated to secondary status, mere suppliers of the fodder public schools process, not to mention the denigration of any religious and moral qualms the parents may have about, for instance, contraceptives being given out along with references to Planned Parenthood (which nicely compliment the PP sex ed courses being taught).

    For all the above reasons Charters should be expanded, parents seek quality in education, a school they can actually interact with, not command and control social experimentation; teacher’s unions have no grounds for complaint — their failed model has been weighed in the marketplace of ideas and found wanting.

  21. Parents have only 1 chance to provide the best foundation for their children in their children’s formative years. Well-to-do parents always have a choice. Charter schools give parents a choice. If there are waiting lists for charter schools, then provide more charter schools.

  22. I am urging you to continue Massachusetts’ strong tradition of public education by rejecting any effort to remove or lift the cap on the number of charter schools. I implore the state legislature to enact policies and funding that will benefit all of the children of the Commonwealth.

    The budget of a charter school of 700 could provide extended learning time to all of the children in a school district the size of Chelsea. Extended learning time has shown to close the achievement gap for all the kids in a school district.

    Charter schools have a negative impact on the fiscal health of a district school. Boston will lose an astonishing $121,000,000 to charter schools in 2016. This hits home to me as a mother because my mayor is currently contemplating which schools will need to close to “right size” the district. Boston Public Schools is one of the top performing urban districts in the nation according to NAEP scores.

    I do not believe that the children who are admitted to charter schools are well served either. Due to their dramatic attrition rates, very few children end up graduating from charter schools. Children leave because they cannot abide by their severe “No Excuses” discipline model or because the charter school does not serve their population well. These children then return to the district that welcomes them but is now struggling to make ends meet.

    I urge the legislator to adopt progressive and fiscally responsible policies that will support the education of all our children.

  23. Expand the charter school limits In Boston we have given the BPS many years and they continue to underserve Boston families and too many neighbors still leave their neighborhood when they need a good school and do not get a good option that allows them to stay, or feel obliged to find a private school option. After hoping desperately for a good local option when my child was ready for school, we went the private school route and I suspect i would do so again 20 years later. I had a choice and others should have more choice as well. How many families felt they had to leave the neighborhood or pay tuition in these 20 years? Enough. Support children and families not a school bureaucracy.

  24. Several years ago, I heard Dana Mohler-Faria, who was president at Bridgewater State, speak of a third grader from Dorchester who was deemed such a trouble maker that he was expelled. His mother, who did not even have a high school diploma, was determined to get him a good education and enrolled him in a charter school. When Mohler-Faria met the young man, he was a high school senior, and he had just been accepted at Dartmouth College in their engineering program. He asked the young man what had made the difference for him, and he said that he found himself at a school where the teachers cared about him as a person. I have never forgotten that.

    Why couldn’t that be the standard within public schools — caring for students as people? Don Berwick, running for governor, had said that we should use charter schools as experiments, and then use those good ideas to make public schools better for all. I agree with that.

    I had a very similar insight in September 2012 when I attended Recovery Day in the Gardiner Auditorium. There were speakers there from Independence High in Brockton and the way they spoke of their teachers and administrators brought me to tears, very similar to the young man who was once an expelled third grader. There is something very wrong with public schools, as I noticed when my kids were at their suburban (South Shore) high school. It must be the environment that makes teachers mini-jailers or something. They are not even empowered to allow kids to go to the bathroom. I was horrified, when I served on the Handbook Committee, to learn that bathrooms were locked between classes, forcing students to have to ask permission from their teachers once they got to class. They could only get so many permissions per semester and then the teacher would have to call a vice principal to get permission to let a student go to the bathroom. You can’t make this stuff up. One of the students on the handbook committee was a girl trying to explain to those gathered why these bathroom policies are particularly difficult for girls, but they were deaf to it. My kids went to Montessori when they were little and I remember a bathroom in every class. No one asked permission. You went and came back when you were through. I am sure there are many other issues that restrict teachers and make it tough on students.

    Another horrifying thing in public schools is lockdowns. The first one I remembe, in 2007, resulted in police and dogs from multiple communities involved in locking students in their rooms, doing quasi strip searches, and so on. The yield was two joints of marijuana total. The second time this was done, a student who parked his car at the church across the street — because of limited parking at the school — had his car searched and he was charged with possessing a weapon… for a Swiss army knife! The insanity the goes on daily at public schools creates a climate that destroys respect between teachers and students… unlike at the charter school mentioned above or the recovery high school.

    Bottom line is that charter schools have been lifesavers for some kids, but I worry about everyone left behind in the crazy public schools, and my deepest wish to make that environment better.

  25. I have served as a Board member of Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester for over 3 years. NHCS has 400 students, backfills through 8th grade and has predominantly low-income students of color. It is extraordinary to me how the faculty accomplishes both academic & social/emotional growth. I firmly believe that parents in communities with a cap, like Boston, deserve more choices of quality schools.

  26. Senator Brownsberger,

    I urge you to oppose any expansion of charter schools and I ask you to reconsider the threat that they pose to the suburban communities in your district, especially if the cap is lifted under terms that restrict the number of new charters that could go into Boston. I’ve seen how a charter school can damage a suburban district. I lived in Melrose for more than 45 years and was quite active in the community. In the mid-1990s, a charter school opened up in Malden (the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School) that served the surrounding communities. For the reasons you cited about the lack of unionization, the charter school was able to make the school day 25% longer and to add 20 days to its school year. It actively discouraged students with special needs from applying for the lottery (at its open house events, the charter school presenters would say that there is a “right” school for every student and, if a child has special needs, that “right” school was the traditional public school) and became quite adept at getting the students with academic or behavioral issues who did get in to return to the traditional school systems (e.g. through repeated suspensions and/or refusals to promote). These moves made the charter school very attractive to parents, more of whom entered the lottery to send their children there. Since the children who ended up at the charter were relatively less expensive to educate and since the teachers at the charter school left for better jobs as soon as they possibly could and therefore not many of them got much above the starting salary, the charter became flush with cash. The charter initially held little appeal for the folks in Melrose, who had not bought homes in Melrose so they could send their kids to school in Malden. However, after Mitt Romney became Governor, local aid was cut in 2003 and the Melrose School Committee imposed a $2,500 fee for full day Kindergarten. The charter school offered full day Kindergarten at no cost. This is when the charter started to draw children from Melrose (it is now also drawing a significant number of children from Wakefield, Stoneham and Reading as well). At this point, Melrose is sending over 200 students and more than $2 million a year net to the charter school and, because the amount of money it saves when it loses a student is far less than the amount of money that it must send to the charter along with the child, its school system is under tremendous financial strain.
    The Melrose schools used to be quite good. Now, the per pupil expenditure and the average teacher salary in Melrose are at the bottom of the Middlesex League. When I attended the Melrose schools, teachers from other towns transferred to us. Today, Melrose can only hire the teachers and principals that better paying towns pass on and, as soon as they can, these educators leave Melrose for better jobs elsewhere (i.e., Belmont High Principal Dan Richards).

    Belmont is a wonderful town and I think that the people here support their schools. However, if a charter school popped up on the town line in Arlington, Lexington, Waltham, Cambridge, or Watertown and if the charter offered a longer school day and/or a longer school year and had a nice marketing pitch (e.g., saying that it was specially designed to serve the unique needs of “gifted” students), then those features, along with the implicit understanding that the school would have relatively fewer special needs students and would quickly get rid of children with behavior problems, would soon lead to a significant number of folks from Belmont lining up for the lottery.

    Jumping up 10,000 feet, I have to note that I perceive a racial angle to the way in which charter schools came about that I find disturbing. Since the advent of busing, the most contentious vote in the state legislature each year concerned public aid to private schools. The biggest proponents of providing this aid were the urban reps, whose constituents were sending their kids to parochial schools to avoid the now integrated public schools. In a series of narrow votes, the urban reps repeatedly came up just short. However, since the creation of charter schools, the public aid vote isn’t nearly so big a deal anymore. The urban reps couldn’t get public money to the parochial schools but now many parochial schools have become charter schools and they are publicly funded.

    I’ve been trained to see every issue from both sides. However, I struggle to see the positives in charter schools. I thought they were supposed to be laboratories for innovation that would come up with great ideas that could be adopted by the traditional school system to the betterment of all. I don’t think that charters have fulfilled this goal (and, if they did offer some statewide benefits, they should be funded by a line-item in the state budget, not on the backs of the children in local traditional public schools). I also thought that charters were supposed to provide an alternative to a failing traditional school. The Melrose schools were not struggling before a charter school opened up in Malden. That charter school wasn’t a response to problems in the Melrose schools, it was the cause of them. Moreover, even if charters achieved better educational outcomes for their students (the studies go both ways on this question), it seems to me that such a result would likely be due to the fact that the charters have fewer special needs students and English language learners. In that sense, a relatively good performance by the charters could be explained by the fact that they had essentially skimmed the cream from the traditional schools. Even if this skimming produced improved results for the students who were skimmed, what it would do to the children left behind who would no longer receive the benefit of having the skimmed students in their classrooms?

    Anyway, I don’t think that a parent could credibly say that the traditional public schools in and around Belmont are performing so badly that my sons should be made to subsidize their preference for a charter. When I last checked, the Melrose schools had better MCAS scores than the charter school in Malden but the Melrose schools still had to subsidize the choice many Melrose parents made to use the charter – choices that seemed to be based more on child care concerns (a 25% longer school day and 20 more school days in the year) than on academics (a much higher percentage of Melrose teachers were deemed highly qualified to teach their subject than was the case at the charter).

    I’ve been wondering if the core problem of charter schools could be illustrated through an analogy. Here goes – imagine a charter postal service that could make its non-unionized employees work more for the same pay and could therefore offer Sunday delivery. Lots of people would love the charter post office and would enter the lottery to be served by it. Imagine also that the charter post office was permitted to discourage relatively hard to serve citizens (like people who live in remote locations) to enter its lottery and was able to strike from its list of customers those who were relatively problematic (like people with dogs that bit letter carriers) and that the charter post office used the resulting savings to add a second delivery on Wednesdays. Imagine further that the charter post office was funded by shifting from the traditional post office to the charter post office for every customer who went from the former to the later the average amount of money that the traditional post office spent to serve a client and that, due to the economies of scale, the traditional post office lost more money than it saved on every client who made the switch. Finally, imagine, that as a consequence of this funding system, the service standards of the traditional post office diminished while those at the charter post office increased. Even more people would flock to the charter post office. However, once people realized that only a fraction of them would win the lottery to get into the charter post office and that the existence of the charter post office meant that they would likely end up being served by a now weakened traditional post office, a lot of folks might wonder if it made sense to create two postal systems funded off of one pot of money with operational differences that favored one system over the other and that ultimately promised to create a have and have not society with respect to the provision of a core public service.

    I hope that you will consider these points as you deliberate on lifting the charter school cap. Thanks.

    Dan Barry

  27. I adamantly oppose lifting the cap on charter schools. These are quasi private institutions who not only enroll a lower percentage of students with special needs and limited English skills, but they “counsel out” certain students who are either deemed to be ” not a good fit” or seen as behavioral problems. Public schools may not do this, in fact if public schools had an attrition rate as high as many charters, they would be blasted as “drop out factories.”
    In my opinion, far more work needs to be done and more resources put into play to strengthen our public schools before funding charters who do not serve all students and have an uneven record at best on educating them. There are many great public schools in our urban areas as well. Why not shine a light on them, and replicate what is working in REAL public education.

    1. Hi Amy

      I’d love to learn more about your personal experience and your child(dren)”s journey. It’s disheartening to hear that you had a bad charter school experience. Unlike you, I had a very different journey. My mother and I are co-parenting my two niece who arrived in this country in 2010 – both were spanish only speakers and one has learning disabilities. Our experience was very different with our charter school- Yasmin who had a learning disability had been struggling in her level 4 school in Dorchester for a few years until she “won the lottery” and got into Excel charter. By the time Yasmin enrolled at Excel she was in the 5th grade functioning at 2nd grade level. Luckily, in large part due to the long day, extended school year and Saturday classes her charter school offered, within a short period of time Yasmin was not only thriving but excelling in English and in all her subjects. We felt like we lived in the suburbs- she got speech therapy and special equipment- and all of this was FREE. Unfortunately my other niece who didn’t attend a charter for years could not speak english.It wasn’t until we finally enrolled her in a charter school that we started to see the difference. While every school may not be the same, I just wanted to share my experience because as a result of the experience we had, I decided to devote my career to defending and protecting parent choice and charter schools. I’m so sorry to hear about your personal experience- it’s really unfortunate but know that over the last 5 years charter schools have been increasing their SPED and ELL numbers- doing a lot more with a lot less to ensure we close the achievement gap. I have heard horror stories from parents who are still trying to have their SPED/ELL needs met in BPS- but I am confident with the new leadership and so many people of color in positions of power we might finally be able to level the playing field for all children despite where they happen to live.- PUBLIC FUNDS- FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION- Included in that are charter schools who are providing relief and alternative choices for families who have very limited resources. Charter schools are NOT FREE CHEESE- we should have all great quality options district and/or charter. Respectfully and always in solidarity with YOU and those who truly care about PUBLIC education! Julia

  28. I attended middle school at the McAuliffe regional charter school when it was only a few years old, and the experience has decidedly shaped who I am today.
    Academically, I strongly believe that my writing skills grew more at McAuliffe than they could have if I had attended another school in the area. The “Revise, revise, revise!” approach to writing encouraged me to think critically about my writing style. Upon entering high school, my charter school peers and I were ahead of the game in the writing department, and I sincerely believe that my skills improved more in those three years than they have in the seven years since.
    Interpersonally, the small class size and multitude of ice-breakers and group activities helped to create a safe space for a variety of personalities. I believe that this team-centered environment was not only important to my interpersonal growth, but it could also be the perfect environment for adolescents who have some interpersonal difficulties or eccentricities.

  29. Senator Brownsberger,

    Thank you for soliciting input. My wife and I and our children live in the Aberdeen neighborhood of Brighton. We are homeschooling our children, but we care about the education options available to our neighbors and how our tax dollars are spent.

    I could get into details, but I’d rather stay at a high level. I think parents need more options for educating their children. That charters don’t meet every possible requirement doesn’t mean they aren’t helping lots of parents whose traditional schools can’t improve fast enough for their kids – if they ever improve.

    I view the funding questions as a distraction. After all, for all the kids who get a far better education in a charter school, what is the value of *that* in our city? There is so much money spent. Think of it this way: let us say the money “lost” to charters – was $5 million. What if someone started a new $5 million government program that would dramatically increase the education and future outcomes of thousands of children. And it was working! We’d consider that a good investment of education dollars, wouldn’t we? Would we say, “Well it isn’t helping every kind of kid, let’s not do more of it.”

    One more thing: there is so much innovation in education outside the public system. Some in private schools, and some among us homeschoolers, who can innovate in curriculum, resources, and community learning experiments. How do those ideas get to district schools? I think they are more likely to be adopted by charter schools, which can then transfer them to district schools. Charters can – and do – serve as better laboratories than traditional district schools. I want them in the innovation pipeline.

    Lastly, the goal of our educational system should be to give the kids the best education possible. I am uncomfortable with the idea that the needs of the system are somehow more important than the needs of our children. That people talk about what a district loses rather than what families gain – is baffling to me.

    Thank you for listening, Senator.

    Sincerely,

    Ed

    1. Ed- thank you for your insight. Home-schooling is becoming very popular even among communities of color- and you are right innovation is happening everywhere. I think we should reinvest not just $$$ in public schools but also FAITH- unfortunately so many have lost hope.

  30. I believe that a strong education system, starting at birth, is key to our success as individuals and as a country.

    I believe that charter schools can be successful and in general support the concept.

    But I fear for the children whose parents are not engaged enough to make this option for their children and I worry that in creating charter schools we are ignoring the real issue.

    If public schools truly addressed the diverse needs of the children served, embraced the diversity of cultures, and created a flexible responsive system that taught the whole child there would not be a need for charter schools.

    By expanding charter schools we are ignoring the real issue; our public school system is broken.

    I would rather we invest in creating a public school system that works for all than in continuing to carve out a system that works for a few. We will only widen the economic gap and deepen the social ills of our communities.

    I urge you to not support this legislation and instead seek to challenge DESE to create systems that produce results for all by incorporating what charter schools provide.

  31. THANK YOU FOR A CREATING THIS PLATFORM!!! IT WOULD HELPFUL TO HAVE MORE PARENT VOICE BE A PART OF THIS DIALOGUE. IT SEEMS LIKE FOR TOO LONG WE HAVE BEEN DIVIDED TO FIGHT AGAINST EACH OTHER INSTEAD OF WORKING TOGETHER (DISTRICT & CHARTER) TO ADDRESS THE REAL RACIAL/SOCIAL-ECOMONICAL ISSUES IN OUR CURRENT SYSTEM!- PARTICULARLY IN LOW PERFORMING DISTRICTS! I SEE THE SAME PEOPLE AT VERY MEETING AND ON SOCIAL MEDIA SPITTING OUT COMBATIVE AND HOSTILE COMMENTS- USING SMEAR AND FEAR TACTICS TO PROTECT THE STATUS QUO- INSTEAD OF ENCOURAGING PARENTS TO WORK TOGETHER THEY CONTINUE DISREGARDING THE VOICES OF THE MOST IMPACTED BY THIS DEBATE AND SEEM UNWILLING TO REALIZE THAT IF WE ALL WANT WHAT’S BEST FOR OUR CHILDREN THEN IT”S THE CHILD’S NEED THAT HAS TO COME 1st! AS OUR CHILDREN’S 1st ADVOCATE WE KNOW WHAT’S BEST FOR THEM- WE SHOULD BE ABLE TO CHOOSE THE TYPE OF EDUCATIONAL SETTING THAT BEST SUITS THEIR NEEDS! SOME CHARTER SCHOOLS WORK FOR SOME AND SOME PUBLIC SCHOOLS WORK FOR OTHERS- THEY ARE BOTH PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS- PAID FOR WITH OUR TAX DOLLARS AND IT WOULD BE NICE TO KNOW THAT AS A PARENT OF COLOR LIVING IN A HIGH NEED NEIGHBORHOOD THAT I SHOULD BE ABLE TO CHOOSE THE TYPE OF ENVIRONMENT- THAT FITS OUR FAMILY’S NEEDS! SOME FAMILIES CHOOSE CHARTERS BECAUSE OF A LONGER SCHOOL DAY- ESPECIALLY- THOSE WHO CAN’T AFFORD BEFORE OR AFTER CARE. SOME STUDENTS NEED STRONGER STUDENT SUPPORT AND RIGOR- HIGH EXPECTATIONS- AND PARENTS NEED PEACE OF KNOWING THAT THEY WILL BE TREATED WITH RESPECT AND DIGNITY! AS A PARENT NOTHING IS MORE DISEMPOWERING THAN TO HEAR OTHER PEOPLE SPEAK ABOUT YOU LIKE YOU ARE A BURDEN- AS CHARTER PARENTS- WE ARE NOT DRAINING THE SYSTEM-WE WORK JUST AS HARD AS EVERYONE ELSE-SOME ARE EVEN JUGGLING 2-3 JOBS TO MAKE ENDS MEET! THIS IS A SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUE-WE SHOULD LOOK A PUBLIC EDUCATION AS A WHOLE-WE NEED TO HOLD OUR SCHOOLS TO HIGH STANDARDS- AND CREATE A SAFE PLACE FOR PARENTS (NOT SPECIAL INTEREST, UNIONS, ETC) – GET IN THE WAY OF A REAL CONVERSATION! THIS CAN’T BE JUST ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS – THE REFORM of 2016- NEEDS TO HAVE BIG WINS FOR DISTRICT SCHOOLS TOO! WE SHOULD ALSO LET PARENTS PARTICIPATE IN THE DEBATE- AND ALLOW US TO DEFINE WHAT QUALITY MEANS!! Furthermore, children in the United States rank at #28 compared to other countries around the world when it comes to key educational indicators. 28th!!! Instead of expending so much energy and political capital on trying to paralyze the charter public school movement, would all public school parents and the teachers unions better spend their time fighting for the resources, support, and infrastructure needs to make our children competitive and able to thrive in this new global economy?? We should be asking ourselves what those other countries are doing to achieve such results and we should all be fighting to hold our lawmakers (federal, state and local) accountable to making the kinds of investments that it will take to bring our children up to par – across the world – not just within the US. If we, in MA, are only comparing ourselves to the 49 other states, we are blind to the reality that our children face.

  32. I am a 17-year 4th grade teacher at a traditional public elementary school. My knowledge of charter school practices are admittedly limited to a few articles and anecdotes from fellow teachers. In my experience, I have heard charter schools advocates point to the dedication of their staffs and the innovation of their curriculum. Detractors cite the amount of funding charters pull from traditional schools and a charter schools’ ability to “pick and choose” their students. I applaud all educators who dedicate their professional lives to working with children-ALL CHILDREN. If charters truly are able to “pick and choose” the students that comprise their population, then they are NOT truly a public school institution. As an aside to those union detractors and their negative comments, I would say this: My presence in a union does not for one moment take away from my dedication to my students. Please do not confuse union activism and the rights of unions to negotiate fair working conditions as selfish and anti-child. Mr. Brownsberger, keep the charter cap and work with teachers to improve our public education system.

  33. . Thirty-seven thousand children on the charter school waiting list is proof that charter schools are working. Children are our future, let’s give them a chance. The teachers unions sadly have nothing to do with education any more.

  34. Will, I understand your dilemma. Charter Schools can seem like a quick fix for urban systems. I see them as a continual drain on the resources of the system, without any of the benefits that accrue from a public school.

    Charter Schools are a way of hollowing out the public system by people who are determined not to adequately fund the government we want.

    They make me think of the public school systems in predominately red states from the former confederacy where public systems languished before and after integration. White students were sent to private schools. Taxpayers were allowed to fund pubic schools at the lowest amount possible because their children weren’t at stake.

    In the end, everyone suffers when society is bifurcated.

  35. I support Charter schools as it offers a competition to so called “public” schools where quality of education might be replaced by job security for teachers.

    Also, competition is great as it does create equal opportunity for those to apply, but it will not ever ends up with equal outcome.

    Some kids will qualify, some kids will not. It is simply natural by all means. It is during the competitive process that some kids will learn how to excel, the same with sports.

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