WHEN EXPERIMENTS SUCCEED, it makes sense to replicate them. Voters have the chance to continue a successful strategy in public education by approving Question 2, which would allow the state to continue expanding public charter schools in the communities that need them most, including Boston.
If passed, the proposal would create new opportunities for the 32,000 students, predominantly black and Latino, who are now languishing on waiting lists hoping for a spot at a charter school — public schools overseen by the state rather than local districts. Under the law, the state could approve 12 new charter schools per year, making a priority of underperforming districts.
Meanwhile, in the great majority of the Commonwealth’s towns — places with thriving traditional school districts — the referendum would have no impact, because parents there are mostly happy with their schools.
The ballot question has provoked a great deal of confusion, much of it generated by opponents seeking to scare and mislead voters about the fiscal consequences of charter schools. But more than 20 years of experience with charters in Massachusetts suggest those fears are overblown. On the contrary, the history of charter schools in the Commonwealth shows they are working as intended, by providing the kind of choices for poor urban parents that wealthier suburban families simply take for granted.
CHARTER SCHOOLS IN Massachusetts date to 1993, the same year that the state’s highest court found that public education was failing generations of students in low-income communities. Lawmakers then confronted what had been obvious for years: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, birthplace of American public education, had degenerated into a two-tiered public education system.
Its top suburban districts, places like Newton and Wellesley, offered some of the best education available anywhere. But they were largely inaccessible to poor families, thanks to the state’s longstanding shortage of affordable housing in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, public school districts with large minority populations — Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and other urban districts — failed to adequately educate far too many of their students.
As part of that year’s reforms, lawmakers gave consideration to policies to expand school choice for parents, like the mandatory school-choice program that would have allowed students to attend any public school in the state free of charge. Ultimately, though, the Legislature resorted to a new instrument to give parents choices while preserving public control: charter schools. The state invited nonprofits to apply to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to run charter schools, and parents could choose to enroll their children, the same way wealthier parents can elect to move or send their children to a private school. The state reserved the right to shut down charters that underperformed and put a cap on the number allowed in each community and in the state overall.
In addition to providing choices for parents, the state also wanted charters to serve as laboratories for innovative educational approaches. The law gave leeway to experiment with longer schools days, longer school years, and more flexibility in staffing and hiring.
To pay for the new charter schools, the Legislature used the same common-sense funding principle used for vocational schools: The money follows the student. Since the districts no longer had responsibility for educating students enrolled in charter schools, they no longer received the funding associated with that student (they do get a limited reimbursement from the state to ease the transition). That’s an inconvenience for districts, but responding to variations in enrollment numbers — from families moving, shifting demographics, enrolling in regional schools, and many other causes — has always been part of the challenge of managing any school district.
The first charter opened its doors in August 1995.
IN THE YEARS since then, the state’s system for charters has undergone a thorough test, and by any measure it has passed. There are now 78 charter schools in the Commonwealth, and no more seats available in many urban areas. Statewide, charters serve a higher share of low-income, African-American, and Hispanic students (94 percent) than the state as a whole (63 percent). As intended, the schools have pioneered new educational approaches, proving the value of longer school days.
Studies have shown that charters in Massachusetts are producing verifiably better academic results than district schools. For instance, a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in Boston found that kids in 83 percent of charters in the city significantly outperform their traditional public school peers in reading and math. Students in all Massachusetts charter schools gain the equivalent of 36 more days of learning per year in reading and 65 more days of learning in math. A Harvard University report demonstrates that childrenin Chelsea, Salem, Lynn, Boston, Everett, and Holyoke perform better in test scores if they attend a charter school than do their peers at a traditional public school. Another MIT study found that charter school attendance also increases SAT scores sharply, especially in math. And, contrary to the popular criticism that charter schools pick the “cream of the crop” and don’t serve the same high-needs population as their district counterparts, enrollment of English-Language Learners and students with disabilities in Massachusetts charter schools has been increasing in the last few years.
At the same time, early fears about charters have been put to rest. One concern was that private operators would sneak in, circumventing a ban by forming nonprofit arms. DESE prevented that from happening; all but one of these for-profit operators has pulled out of the state.
Nor have the schools overrun the suburbs, where a recurring fear has been that operators would apply to run “boutique charters” that would compete with high-performing district schools. Those communities are still well under their local caps. The last nonurban charter was granted in 2006 in Hadley. That’s because most suburban parents are happy with their district schools. And more likely than not, suburban kids have access to more out-of-school support, from parents or tutors. Boston alone has more than 20 charter schools, and Springfield, Lawrence, Lowell, and New Bedford account for much of the rest.
MEANWHILE, OVER THE last two decades, the charter movement has faced some headwinds. Other states have allowed for-profit companies to start charters, with sometimes lax oversight. Those out-of-state schools have unfairly tainted charters.
This election season, charters also face a specious campaign arguing they are not really public schools, because they don’t answer to local school committees, and that they “drain” resources from districts. These are semantic tricks. Charters are public schools — with independent boards — and ultimately answer to state officials. In fact, 15 charters have closed through either voluntary charter surrender or revocation by the state.
Nor do charters drain money — because the money doesn’t belong to the schools in the first place. When a student is enrolled in a charter school, the money spent by the district to educate that child follows him or her to the charter — the same as if a family moved, say, from Boston to Newton and the student began attending the Newton public schools. Nobody would ever accuse parents who can afford that move of “draining” the Boston schools. Charter parents shouldn’t be held to a double standard.
A related criticism holds charters responsible for the problem they were designed to fix — the existence of a two-tiered education system. This line of argument holds that the state should focus on improving all schools in cities, rather than allowing charters that serve only a few. Putting aside the fact that charters would be happy to serve more students — in fact, that’s the point of Question 2 — it’s a fallacy to believe that improving districts and opening more charters are mutually exclusive goals.
To the contrary, urban charters — and the possibility of more charters if Question 2 passes — should be a spur for reformers in school districts. If school districts in Boston, Springfield, and other urban areas can provide better educational options, the demand for charters will evaporate. And that would be the best possible outcome from the question’s passage: It will pressure public school districts in cities to offer longer school days and win other long-needed reforms.
FOR THE GREAT majority of voters in Massachusetts, the outcome of Question 2 will have no impact on their schools and their children. Since 1993, the strongest public schools in the state have become even stronger, and now rank among the very best in the world. Nothing in the charter-expansion law would change what already works in Massachusetts.
But a goal of an equal, quality education for all continues to elude Massachusetts public education. The families affected are those who don’t live in the suburbs, don’t have the resources to shop for the best school district, and haven’t been lucky enough to win the lottery for a seat at the state’s existing charter schools. Charter schools exist because all parents deserve the same thing for their children: enough choices to ensure their kids get a quality education.
Massachusetts has been a leader in public education for centuries; the commitment to cherish education is even written into the state constitution. In that spirit, the Globe endorses “yes” on Question 2, in the hope that it will write the next chapter in one of the Commonwealth’s great success stories.