LETTER: Informing the discussion on charter schools

Date Published: 
November 15, 2013
Robert L. Beatty

Charter schools were envisioned as centers of innovation that complement the traditional public schools. Importantly, charters should also learn from the success of local districts. The best districts and charters take these founding principles to heart.

In Fall River, the relationship is growing between Atlantis Charter School and the Fall River Public Schools. There are great reforms at FRPS, including the improvement from Level 4 to Level 1 at Kuss. Atlantis learned from that success. In return, Atlantis has supported K-8 design at FRPS and is engaged with the efforts to reduce absenteeism.

There is great value to charters that complement their local districts. So with that, let’s dispense with misleading claims that needlessly confuse the debate:

First, charters are public schools. The claim that they are “private” often implies a lack of accountability. Charters were designed to be independent of local school districts, but they are directly accountable to the state Department  of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Charter accountability standards in Massachusetts have been rated the toughest in the nation.
Second, it is unfair to generalize about educational approach among the 80 charters that have opened in Massachusetts. Whether or not one agrees with the “No Excuses” model, it is only one of a number of approaches. It’s not Atlantis’s model, and it is misleading to suggest that it is the common approach.

Third, demographics at charters should compare fairly with local districts. Since identifying a special needs population lower than FRPS, Atlantis has improved its recruitment, and recent incoming classes have met the DESE’s goals for our special needs population.
Attrition at Atlantis is very low compared to all schools, including traditional schools (4%), and Atlantis didn’t lose a single special education student last year. Attrition rates do vary across schools, but all the more reason to avoid generalizations.

Lastly, Fall River’s creditworthiness should not be a factor here. A recent report by Moody’s about possible negative impact of charters highlights risk factors that do not apply here, including a district’s weak capacity to adjust operations (FRPS has shown a robust capacity to adjust operations, and the recent decision on Henry Lord is an example) and liberal state approval processes (there is still a cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, and the state has one of the most rigorous approval processes in the country).

Most importantly, for every student who leaves a traditional public school for a charter school, the district receives a 225 percent reimbursement over six years for the per-pupil funding that transfers to the charter. (Districts receive 100 percent reimbursement the first year and 25 percent reimbursement for the subsequent 5 years.) This is the most generous reimbursement policy in the nation, and it supports districts in making necessary adjustments based on enrollment projections.

By all means, please do consider carefully the opportunities in Fall River to expand successful education reform in general, and charter schools in particular. But please do so with a thorough explanation of the facts.

Robert L. Beatty is executive director of Atlantis Charter School, Fall River.