Massachusetts ballot measure sparks heated debate on charter schools
A study by the liberal-centrist Washington, D.C., think tank found that passage of Question 2 on the November ballot would benefit students in urban areas by boosting test scores and better preparing them for college.
“This research shows that charter schools in the urban areas of Massachusetts have large, positive effects on educational outcomes,” researchers Sarah Cohodes and Susan Dynarski said. “The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students and children who enter charters with low test scores.”
Opponents of the measure, including democratically elected education committees around the state and labor organizations, charge that charter schools will sap more than $450 million from traditional public schools this year and that increasing the number of charters would lead to larger class sizes and reduced school accountability in local communities.
The measure, which has divided Democratic lawmakers statewide and may become one of the most expensive contests in the state’s history, would allow the creation of 12 new charter schools — or expansions of existing charter schools —each year.
The waiting list of students wanting to study at charter schools in Massachusetts now stands at nearly 33,000, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A total of 74 charter schools have waiting lists, the department said, and the greatest demand is in urban areas.
“In Massachusetts, it’s the most expensive ballot campaign that I think we’ve ever seen,” Eileen O’Connor, spokeswoman for the Great Schools Massachusetts, told AMI Newswire.
O’Connor’s organization supports Question 2, as do Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Boston), who co-founded the Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester. Opponents include Boston City Council President Michelle Wu and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
The Brookings study did not praise all of the state’s charter schools. The researchers found that the effects of charters in rural and suburban areas were not positive. Students attending these schools perform at the same level or worse than their counterparts in traditional public schools, the study found.
However, researchers also acknowledged that some foes of charter schools oppose them because they favor the governance and structure of the traditional schools.
“What we find distressing, and intellectually dishonest, is when these preferences (for traditional schools) are confounded with evidence about the effectiveness of charter schools,” the Brookings researchers said. “The evidence is that, for disadvantaged students in urban areas of Massachusetts, charter schools do better than traditional public schools.”
Question 2 opponents counter with studies showing that many charter schools have high rates of suspension, leading to drop-out rates that are greater than those of traditional schools.
In Massachusetts, all charter schools are nonprofit entities that operate independently of local districts and are not bound by teachers union contracts. They are open to all students and use random lotteries when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available openings.
Opponents also argue that charter schools are governed by appointed boards that may not be in sync with local communities.
“Our research has shown that in aggregate, nearly one-third of the trustees of the state’s charter schools are professionally associated with the corporate world, including significant involvement of financial services professionals,” said a recent report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “Only a small percentage of trustees are parents or students at the school.”
The "No on 2" website also claims that the state's 78 charter schools lack local accountability because they are approved and monitored solely by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But the Brookings study found the state’s oversight of the schools robust.
“New and expanding charters would have to go through the current application and review process, which is one of the most rigorous in the country,” the study said.
Even so, opponents of Question 2 contend the state often gives charters the go-ahead even in the face of local opposition. “That’s wrong,” the "No on 2" website said. “Communities should have the final say on what kinds of schools they want.”
Opponents describe the charter school network, which now serves about 4 percent of the state’s students, as creating a “separate and unequal” system.
“They typically underserve English-language learners and special-needs students, leaving public schools with fewer resources to educate a higher-need population,” the opponents’ website states.
O’Connor, however, said that in reality the expansion of publicly funded charter schools increases the amount of public funds flowing to education in the state. When a student switches from a traditional school to a charter school, the traditional school continues to receive per-pupil funding for that student for six years, she said, though that funding percentage decreases from 100 percent to 25 percent over time.
The public demand for charter school education and its high standards and more innovative methods argue for their expansion, O'Connor said.
“Right now, more than 30,000 children are stranded on public charter school waiting lists hoping for an opportunity for a better education and a brighter future, an opportunity that likely will not come unless arbitrary enrollment caps are lifted at the ballot box this November,” she said.