Carrying on the Mantle of Reform

The current battle over charter schools undermines the public good

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As Massachusetts State Senator Barry Finegold (D-Andover) moves to pass a landmark education reform bill in Massachusetts, the high achievement of earlier reforms is being drowned out by the controversy surrounding charter schools in the Bay State. That controversy threatens a bill with enormous potential to provide a quality education to even more Massachusetts students.

Charter schools have constituted a part of the state’s educational landscape since 1993, when the first of two education reform bills allowed the state to grant charters for nontraditional schools. In 2010, the second major reform bill raised a mandated cap on charter schools while giving the state broader powers to reform underperforming traditional schools.

Charter provisions included, these two bills have been major successes for the state. In the 20 years since the Education Reform Act of 1993 was passed, Massachusetts has become a national leader in education. The state’s reform agenda secured its 2010 victory in President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, garnering more funds for its education system. Massachusetts has emerged as the paragon of an education-fueled knowledge economy, with high graduation rates, superior test scores, and challenging curricula.

Senator Finegold’s bill—An Act to Further Narrow the Achievement Gap—expands upon these successes. It gives struggling schools the power to lengthen their school days and staff their classroom with regard to effectiveness as well as seniority. The bill also eliminates most restrictions on opening new charter schools in the state—which has drawn the bill’s most vocal opposition.

Massachusetts charter schools, on the whole, are a success story. They exist mainly in poorer communities, serving families for whom the local district schools simply are not working. These families cannot afford to move to the suburbs or send their children to private schools, as more affluent families might. Without charter schools, poorer families would have no choice in their children’s education.

Charter schools provide that choice, and most exhibit better test scores and higher eventual graduation rates than neighboring district schools. Eventual graduation rates—as opposed to four-year graduation rates—measure the percentage of students that graduate from the school in any amount of time, while four-year graduation rates only measure the percentage of students that graduate from high school in a span of four years.

This distinction is important because many charter schools do not engage in social promotion—a practice that allows students to ascend grade levels and even graduate with their classmates regardless of whether or not those students have mastered grade-level curricula. This means that some charter school students will take a year or two more to graduate than will their peers in traditional public schools. Those students, however, will have graduated not because of social promotion, but because they have mastered the curriculum.

These schools are high performing, and students want to attend them, yet there is still a public battle over the role of Bay State charter schools. Many opponents allege that charters sap funding from the “actual” public schools and that their performance results from nothing more than cherry-picking the very best students—leaving those with special needs, low English proficiency, or less motivation behind. They also contend that charters trample on teachers’ rights and concern themselves only with profit.

As with any debate, there are valid issues to be worked out concerning charter schools—but at least in Massachusetts, these are not them. Massachusetts charter schools are completely public schools. They are accountable to the state government—which monitors charters, regulates them, and can close them if it sees fit—and they cannot charge tuition. Being public schools, they cannot—and do not—engage in selective or merit-based admissions. As to trampling on teachers’ rights, Massachusetts charter schools are indeed not often unionized—but even in those that are not, teachers are paid at comparable (or better) rates to their traditional school counterparts, and they freely choose to teach there.

These allegations are particularly unfortunate because they obfuscate more substantive charter school policy debates. The argument that Massachusetts charter schools “cherry-pick” their students, for example, is false. But when one looks beyond the sound bytes, there is room for improvement in charter school admissions policies.

Currently, every charter school is required to have a separate application. Because demand for charter seats so far outweighs the seats available, most families have to apply to several charters persistently in order to gain entrance to one. This means that most students who even apply probably have family members who are active in their education. That difference, charge charter opponents, could account for the better performance.

Proponents of charter schools, far from exploiting the situation to drive up their test scores, have actually offered solutions to the problem. Some charter proponents in Boston advocate a single, streamlined application process for all the district’s charter schools. Parents would only need to apply once to get their children in the all of the various lotteries. The hope is that more children from high-need backgrounds—often with working parents or no parents at home at all—would benefit from a system that would require less time from the parents just to get in the door.

The battle over charter schools is largely a political ploy that undermines substantive policy work. Charters have been proven good models where students thrive and succeed. So have most traditional public schools in Massachusetts. Our goal should be to encourage schools that work while reforming schools that don’t—which is exactly what An Act to Further Narrow the Achievement Gap does.

John A. Griffin ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Lowell House.

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