The BLOG: Politics and Law

Charter schools benefit entire districts, not just a select few

[File Photo/SHNS]

[File Photo/SHNS]

As we approach the final week before Election Day and voters consider ballot questions, arguments for and against Question 2, which would expand access to charter schools throughout the Commonwealth, are being made. 

Opponents of Question 2 claim that the charter schools themselves are not superior to traditional public schools; rather, they maintain, these schools cherry-pick exceptional students and are engaged in selection bias (wherein parents who prioritize their kids’ education are the ones who seek out charter schools).  Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, charter schools only show gains because they are taking better students, and removing those talented students from traditional public schools hurts those schools.

The evidence, both in Massachusetts and around the country, is that charter schools are anything but an elaborate sorting mechanism; rather, the entire school district shows improvement when charter schools move in.

As but one example, in 2005, only 39% of Denver’s public high school students received a diploma within four years.  At the time, approximately 7% of their high school students were enrolled in charter schools.  Since then, Denver experimented with decentralized educational systems, an expansion of charter schools coupled with increased accountability.  (It closed or replaced almost fifty underperforming charter schools.)  Now, about eighteen percent of Denver students are enrolled in charter schools, another nineteen percent are enrolled in innovation schools, and 65% of Denver high school students graduate within four years.

This is not coincidental: studies of school districts with large numbers of charter schools found that traditional public schools are aware of the need to improve to attract and retain students who can opt for charters.  Traditional public schools will incorporate qualities of high-performing charter schools in their own institutions, expand programs and offerings, add tutoring during critical years, improve efficiency, and support schools with more autonomy.

Here in Boston, the development of charter school options has driven the improvement of Boston public schools from some of the lowest-performing city school districts in the nation to one of the highest-performing urban districts.  Charter schools were first authorized in Massachusetts in 1993, when the cap was twenty-five schools statewide.  That cap was increased in 1996 and again in 2000, to the current cap of one hundred twenty statewide charter schools.  Such increase in charter schools has, in both urban districts and statewide, correlated with improved education for students.

Ultimately, increasing school choice for students is not a zero-sum game: it benefits the students who want to escape underperforming schools, as well as those who want to attend traditional public schools or whose parents do not advocate as strongly for their education. 

Birdget L. Fay

Bridget L. Fay

Bridget L. Fay is an attorney and a former chemical engineer. She resides in Massachusetts.