Thought leadership

Déjà vu: the Massachusetts charter fight

By Steven Wilson September 29, 2016

An epic education fight is underway in Massachusetts. In November, voters will decide whether to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth and permit up to 12 new schools each year, with preference given to schools in low-performing districts like Boston. Groups advocating for and against the ballot initiative have raised $19 million dollars, more than for any ballot measure in a decade.

It is not the state’s first charter battle. Twenty-three years ago I helped draft the original charter law and was its most ardent advocate. Every established education interest group in the state—the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents—was vehemently opposed to the new schools, then as now. But in a dramatic middle of the night vote, we prevailed by one vote in the State Senate. The measure survived in conference committee, and charters came to Massachusetts.

Then, as now, the opposition argued: Charters drain money from the public schools. Charters cream the ablest students. Charter students succeed because their parents are more motivated.

These were fears then. They are falsehoods today.

Charters drain money from the public schools. No, district schools and charters are both paid in proportion to the number of students they educate. What could be more equitable?

In fact, Massachusetts district schools are already “reimbursed” (an Orwellian misnomer) for three years for the full cost of each student they no longer educate—nearly the full amount in the first year, and lesser amounts for five additional years. If I stopped receiving the services of my doctor, would she demand to be paid for the medical services she no longer provides?

Charters succeed because they cream the best students. No, Boston’s charters perform dramatically better both in absolute terms and after controlling for differences in student demographics and baseline performance. Students with low incoming test scores, black students, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners all fare especially well in their new schools. The city’s charters enroll virtually the same proportion of black and Latino children, and rates of English language learners and students with disabilities are steadily increasing and approaching parity.

Charters benefit from more motivated parents. No, an MIT study compared the performance of students admitted by lottery to Boston charter schools with that of students who applied for the lottery but didn’t get in; the charter school students performed markedly better than those who applied but by chance didn’t gain admission. Charter students’ achievement gains are attributable to the education they receive, not their innate characteristics or their parents’ motivation.

Not only have these concerns proved false, a quarter century later the Massachusetts charter program is the rare, unalloyed success in education. Test score gains by Boston’s charter sector are some of the largest ever recorded in an at-scale educational reform. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (which has published unflattering studies of charters nationally) found that Boston’s charters performed the best of 41 urban charter sectors: on average, Boston charters provide the equivalent of more than a year of additional district instruction every year in both math and reading. Charter students post higher SAT scores and AP exam passing rates and are much more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers who applied to a charter school but were not admitted by lottery. Many charters in the city regularly send nearly all of their graduates to college and not only close but reverse the achievement gap for their largely low-income students of color.

The sector has already transformed the life trajectories of tens of thousands of children. But because of the legislature’s arbitrary charter caps, more than 32,000 students are stuck on waiting lists, 18,000 in Boston alone.

Soon the matter will be before the public. Fortunately, voters are not state legislators; they cannot be threatened with a withholding of the unions’ support at the next election. Instead, the public will be subjected to a multi-million-dollar campaign of television advertising. Gauzy images of devoted teachers, adorable children, billowing flags. A sonorous narrator will warn us public education itself is under attack, one of our deepest American ideals.

But no. Voters must recognize that their deep commitment is to public education, not to a particular, long-troubled institution—big city school systems, with their ineffectual school boards, rotating superintendents, 300-page union contracts, and tenure laws. Public charter schools are radically outperforming district-run schools and making good on our country’s fundamental promise of equal opportunity. In Massachusetts, urban charter schools are not an assault on public education, but its redemption.

I would love to hear your questions or comments: email me at steven.wilson@ascendlearning.org.