November ballot question: Lifting the charter school cap

Printed from:

The most popular governor in the United States wasn’t going to let a mid-July downpour on the State House steps dampen the launch of ballot campaign to lift the state’s charter school cap. Spending down some of the political capital he’s accrued over the last two years, Governor Charlie Baker announced his support for a measure that will potentially increase annually the number of charter schools by 12.

While the rain fell, the rhetoric from the usually cautious Baker hit a stride: “You know something folks: For too many children and too many families in the Commonwealth of Mass., it’s been raining for a really long time,” the State House News Service reported. ”For too many families and too many kids the skies have not cleared. The sun does not shine. They do not get the chance and the opportunity to go to the school of their choice.”

Baker’s support for lifting the cap on charter schools sees him playing the role of disruptor of a status quo that’s outlived its shelf life. Unlike some other issues where Baker’s neutrality or indifference – think Common Core — has caused some consternation among his small but skeptical conservative base, the charter school issue allows the governor to be more forceful. Overall, it’s a low-risk strategy, given the popularity of charter schools across the political spectrum. But everyone is expecting political firepower from the anti-reform forces.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated free from local interference. Often they are enabled to provide methods such as tutoring, longer school days, tighter codes of discipline. They can rely on flexible work rules and build curricula around themes and ideas. Charter schools find ways to intensify parental involvement. These innovations can account for the equivalent of additional learning days for each student in math and reading.

If approved by the voters in November, the ballot question certified by the Massachusetts Attorney General will allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools each year. Should the board receive applications from more than that number, districts with student performance in the bottom 25 percent of state assessments and strong popular demand will be given preference. In reality, charter school advocates — given the economics and logistics — think only two or three new schools will be approved by the board each year. But teacher union resistance can be overwhelming, even if the changes are small.

Heading into the election this fall, charter school supporters, led by the governor, will have the luxury of soaring rhetoric supported by both public support and empirical evidence. Massachusetts voters are on board with expanding the number of charter schools. A May poll from the Suffolk University Political Research Center found that 49 percent of likely voters believe that charter schools provide better options for students rather than unfairly divert public resources from standard public schools. Moreover, an equal amount support charter schools for communities where test scores are lowest. But poll numbers only reflect part of the picture. The best indication of public support are the thousands of children on waiting lists to get into public charter schools: 12,000 students in Boston alone — a stunning figure by any count considering the total Boston Public School enrollment is 56,500.

As for the scientific evidence, the results are in. Charter schools improve student performance, and they do so convincingly. In 2011, the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University found that charter schools outperform traditional schools at the eighth and tenth grade levels when they are matched with traditional schools having similar concentrations of minority and low-income students. After controlling for socio-economic differences among the student populations, BHI found a 9.8 percent to 23.0 percent improvement over the test scores at traditional schools in eighth grade mathematics. For 10th grade, the results were even more impressive: 25.7 percent improvement over the scores for traditional schools. Although the study found little improvement for fourth grade students, the results for the higher grades indicate that improvement takes time.

The BHI results are consistent with those of studies completed by other organizations. For example, in a study released the same year, the Boston Foundation found strikingly similar results. Moreover, in a study of 41 school regions across the nation, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public schools. In the sample of 41 regions, 26 regions posted large learning gains and 11 regions had smaller learning gains but still more than traditional public schools. The remaining four were equivalent with traditional public schools. Charter schools, the study found, may help narrow the achievement gap. “Learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading. Students who are both low-income and Black or Hispanic, or who are both Hispanic and English Language Learners, especially benefit from charter schools.” The CREDO study identified the Boston region as one “where the marginal improvement of charter school learning over TPS is dramatic” for math and just as strong for reading.

Critics claim charter schools don’t serve special needs students. That argument has run its course. Last year’s MIT study demolished the longstanding union meme decisively. According to the author Elizabeth Setren, “Charters also significantly increase the likelihood that special needs students meet a key high school graduation requirement, become eligible for a state merit scholarship, and take an AP exam. Special education students in charters score on average 115.7 points higher on the SAT than their traditional public school counterparts.” More importantly, these students are mainstreamed —thus losing the special needs designation by the start of the following year.

Every argument against charter schools – skimming the best students, lack of attention for special needs, and the achievement gap – has been debunked thoroughly. Amid the sound and fury, opponents are now quibbling about the size of waiting lists. Even if the vetted number sifting out any of the duplicates were used, that still leaves an extraordinary amount of demand. In the end, it’s the debate is about accountability. If a charter school fails, it goes out of business. The small number that has closed is testament to that idea. On the other hand, if a public school faces chronic academic shortcomings, vested interests call for spending more public dollars. “The arguments against charter schools are beginning to get ridiculous,” says Dominic Slowey, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

The Governor’s help is certainly welcome but it won’t be decisive. Success depends on urban, reformed-minded Democrats who see charters as one way to narrow the achievement gap among minority students. To their credit they know that the idea of effective, equitable education cannot rely on a 20th century model.

Support for November’s ballot question may not be as pronounced in suburban districts, some of them conservative leaning. That’s because Republican and Democrat suburbanites in Massachusetts make their real estate decisions on the quality of schools. They’ve already exercised their choice; it’s the urban poor seeking high quality education who don’t’ have the option.

Putting a stop to the ultimately modest expansion of charter schools would be like disallowing a promising drug after it passed medical trials. The experiment is over and charter schools have won.

The ballot question fight will draw millions of dollars in anti-charter politicking and harsh rhetoric from the national and state teacher unions. This despite the fact that an increase in charter school enrollment statewide will remain small relative to total enrollment in K-12 schools.

“They see Massachusetts as a firewall against charter expansion,” says Slowey. “If they can stop this here, it will somehow stunt the expansion of charter schools nationally.”

The Governor needs to make sure that doesn’t happen. Parents seeking choices are waiting for the skies to clear.

Frank Conte

Frank Conte

Frank Conte is director of communications at the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University where he also serves as project manager for the annual State Competitiveness Report and Index. Read his past columns here.