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Next week, Massachusetts voters will have a say on a sophisticated issue of education policy: whether to raise the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the Commonwealth. Despite the issue’s complexity, the record of charters in Massachusetts shows that a “yes” on Question 2 is the best choice for voters. Much more work is needed to make Massachusetts’ education system truly equitable, but Question 2 addresses a current and pressing need, and deserves passage.
Currently, Massachusetts has a statewide cap on the number of charter schools that has not been met, as well as a cap on the number of students who can enroll in charter schools, which has been met in some areas. Several cities and towns, including Boston, have met their local caps, and have large waitlists for charters. Statewide, more than 32,000 students are on waitlists, and cities that have reached their limit have student populations that are much more heavily low-income, immigrant, Black, and Hispanic.
The mechanics of Question 2 would allow the state to approve 12 additional charter schools per year, and in years with more than 12 applicants would give an advantage to those districts with test scores in the bottom 25 percent of the state, ensuring that charters go where they are most direly needed.
Notably, independent research has found Massachusetts’ urban charters to be among the best in the country. The positive effects of charters are especially prominent in Boston: According to a Brookings Institution report, “The test score gains produced by Boston’s charters are some of the largest that have ever been documented for an at-scale education intervention.” Though suburban charter schools in Massachusetts have no appreciable positive effects, the urban ones that would be allowed to expand by this ballot measure have made great strides in helping students.
Crucially, a greater percentage of charter school students in Massachusetts come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, speak English as a second language, and are Black and Hispanic than in district schools. Some charters perform less well on these measures, but have been improving. In the same vein, though charters educate a slightly lower percentage of special education students, studies have found that these students make impressive gains from attending charters, and charter schools have worked diligently over the past six years to enroll more.
Given charters schools’ robust record, opponents of Question 2 have focused mostly on their potential cost. When a student leaves a district school for a charter, the district pays tuition equal to the amount it would otherwise pay to educate that student. The state then reimburses 100 percent of tuition payments for the first year a child attends a charter, and 25 percent for the next six years. Unfortunately, the state legislature has underfunded these measures, and owes cities like Boston tens of millions of dollars. While this dereliction represents a serious problem, it does not obviate the need for more charters in the cities affected by the cap. If voters pass Question 2, as we hope, the legislature must ensure that tuition reimbursements are funded in full.
This underfunding underscores a sad reality of the education debate in Massachusetts and around the country. Despite claims on all sides, education policy does not lend itself to silver bullets. That Question 2 is even on the ballot is a testament to the legislature’s inability to deal with this particular issue, to say nothing of more fundamental concerns like equitable school funding and teacher compensation.
Perhaps most importantly, district schools and state education policy makers need to begin learning from the successes that charters have had. Our support for Question 2 is grounded in the belief that the 32,000 students on charters waitlists should not have to wait to access great schools with proven records. But a system that leaves this many students wanting better options is a system that needs more wholesale reform. We urge Massachusetts voters to approve Question 2, and then to keep the pressure on lawmakers for faster action to improve all of Massachusetts’ public schools.
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