Charter School expansion opponents rally at State House

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BOSTON – Charter school expansion foes mobilized to announce organized opposition to a ballot question that would lift the cap on the number of the publicly funded institutions in Massachusetts, gathering outside the State House Wednesday to rally support.

The head of the group, Juan Cofield, who is also a regional leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, ratcheted up the rhetoric of inequality in his comments at the gathering, likening what he called a “dual-school system” to a form of segregation.

“What we’re faced with now is an expanding dual-school system,” said Cofield, the chairman of the Campaign to Save Our Public Schools, at the rally.

“We all know as Brown versus the Board of Education taught us, a dual-school system is inherently unequal,” Cofield said, referring to the landmark civil rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. Charter school backers “don’t even suggest that it’s equal, and that’s a real problem for our society.”

Proponents of raising the cap, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, point to waiting lists with the names of more than 30,000 students looking to enter a charter school in the state as evidence that parents want their children to have the opportunity of attending one. Baker has proposed raising the charter cap in districts with underperforming schools, while the ballot measure would lift it statewide.

Advocates say the privately run institutions deliver a better educational experience for less money than traditional public schools. But opponents claim they siphon away financial resources from public systems and often exclude the most disadvantaged children.

“All of the resources available for education ought to be focused on developing a school system that is top-notch and seeks to bring the best out of each individual school, not segregating a few and maybe providing a better education for them,” Cofield said.

Wednesday’s press conference was the latest in a recent series of efforts aimed at fighting the cap-lifting ballot initiative. Last week, coinciding with a day-long State House hearing in which lawmakers heard lengthy testimony from initiative opponents, hundreds of Boston Public School students participated in a massive “walk-out” and Beacon Hill rally to protest potential budget cuts for the district.

It later became apparent that the student’s walk-out was promoted by groups affiliated with several teachers unions, according to the Boston Globe.

A chief organizer at another walk-out promoter, the Boston Education Justice Alliance, also spoke at the Wednesday rally. The organizer, Marlena Rose said her daughter entered Roxbury Preparatory Charter School nearly a decade ago as an A student but eventually came to despise the school, citing what she said was a “ridiculous” discipline system “that shamed and embarassed her and her friends.”  

“Her memory remains vivid, as does mine – she spoke about demerits running like water and that the only black teachers were enrichment teachers and almost all of her close fellow students leaving the school,” Rose said. She said the school also inflicted a psychological toll on her as well.

“I don’t want a penny of my tax dollars going to a system that treats children this way,” or their parents, she said.

Ryan Kelly, the principal of Roxbury Prep’s Mission Hill middle school, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment and left after normal business hours Wednesday.

Roxbury Prep, which began in 1999 with 75 students on Mission Hill, now has more than 900 pupils enrolled in three middle school campuses and a high school in the city, according to its website. It says it stresses curriculum, character and community.

Other speakers challenged the wait-list statistics often cited by supporters of expanding charter schools, including Baker. Opponents of a higher cap like Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, criticized expansion backers for citing a statewide charter school wait-list figure of 34,000 students, claiming that an analysis performed by her group shows the actual number is under 15,000.

A report released last month by State Auditor Suzanne Bump, a Democrat, confirmed that analysis, Guisbond said, and declared that the wait-list statistics are flawed.

“Our current path leads towards an entrenched separate and unequal system of public education and we think it’s time to acknowledge that and move in a different direction – toward equitably resourced schools for all children and publicly accountable schools,” Guisbond said. “We’re building a grassroots movement to oppose the expansion of the unaccountable charters and to educate neighbors about the ballot question’s real costs.”

Worcester City Councilor-at-Large Khrystian King also spoke, pointing out that he and nine other council members in the city of more than 180,000 residents recently voted against lifting the charter cap. Mayor Joe Petty, who is also a member of the council, co-sponsored the measure, according to a Worcester Telegram & Gazette report. Only Councilor-at-Large Konstantina B. Lukes, a former member of the city’s school committee, voted against opposing a cap increase.

Adding more charter schools in Worcester could wreak havoc on the district’s education budget, King said. He said $24.8 million in state funding for the city’s school district already goes to the two charter schools operating there.

“As we move forward we wanted to make sure to let our delegation here in the State House know that these are the wishes of the second-largest city in New England,” King added.