Charter Train Slows: Senate Keeps Cap

State HouseThe Parent Imperfect enjoys winning one once in a while. What’s the matter with that? Yes, I know…the only thing worse than a sore loser is a smug winner.

On Wednesday, against what once seemed like big odds, the Massachusetts Senate defeated two bills that would have lifted the cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close. The Senate Bill crafted by Boston’s own Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz went down by a vote of 26-13, while the even worse House version of Wellesley’s Rep. Alice Peisch took and even harder fall by a 30-9 tally. If I could bring myself to drink at 6:57 AM, I’d offer a toast right here.

The day before the vote, I was not optimistic. It seemed that about a fourth of the chamber was solidly against charter expansion and a more or less equal number were clear that removing the cap on charter expansion was the way to go. The big group in the middle were from places in the state that wouldn’t really be affected that much by charters, but they seemed to be leaning toward supporting Chang-Díaz in her effort to craft a bill that would pay Paul without really robbing Peter (fund charters without damaging the public schools).

Dont be fooledBut a funny (and fortunate) thing happened on the way to the roll call. Nearly all of that middle group of people–apparently without strong convictions on the issue–came to the conclusion that it was not time to add more charters in the Commonwealth’s “low-performing” districts. A few of those Senators spoke eloquently against the bill in the debate, and almost all of them voted against it when the time came. So…what happened?

How was it that a spirited, if low budget, effort by public education advocates–many of them BPS parents, teachers and students–overcame a slick pro-charter campaign, complete with lobbyists, paid polls and sophisticated public relations? The pro-charter juggernaut supported by the Boston Foundation, the Boston Globe, many downtown corporate interests and (we all must recognize) many parents fed up with the BPS had moved the legislation past several apparent box canyons and had easily carried the day at the House vote in May.

Charter booster, Scot Lehigh, published his pre-mortem explanation in the Globe the day before. For him, the bill was in danger because of the machinations of Sen. Chang-Díaz, who had re-inserted several poison pills that had been left out of the House bill. Most notably, in pursuit of a “third way,” the Boston Senator had the audacity to link charter expansion to the Legislature’s fulfillment of its legal mandate to reimburse school districts for a fraction of what they lose each year in tuition payments to charters. No reimbursement, no charter expansion…simple as that.

In truth, those reimbursements don’t repair the financial damage done by the diversion of state education funds to charter schools, but (sorry Scot) this and other Chang-Díaz ideas were not the reason the bill fell. If that was the case, then the Senate could have rejected the Chang-Díaz bill and then passed the House bill without Sonia’s troubling provisions. But Alice Peisch’s gift to the charter lobby–the House bill–got even less support than the Chang-Díaz “compromise.”

Marc Kenan, of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association, didn’t go there in his prickly statement, released right after the vote (at least it was a real post-mortem). …But, misinformation about charters is driving policy at the State House. Opponents play fast-and-loose with the facts about charter enrollment, attrition, and financial impact on districts. And they seem to have a receptive audience in the state Senate. Marc is closer to the truth than the Globe columnist.

Drain GraphThe movement to oppose this bill did use data to present a coherent argument that charter expansion would continue to hurt the finances of public school districts. Given the financial crunch faced by urban districts and the increasing amount of state aid already going to charters, this was not a hard argument to make. We also used data gathered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the charters, themselves, to argue that charters are not enrolling either English Language Learners or Students with Special Needs at acceptable rates, given the presence of these students in traditional schools. Finally, we argued that a disturbingly high percentage of the students that charters do enroll leave those schools before graduation. The charters’ own data shows that their attrition rates are higher than the public districts from which they are drawing their students. If relying on publicly-available data to make an argument about the impact of charter expansion is being “fast and loose,” then I plead guilty as charged, and many of the parents, students, teachers and community members who joined me–and did the real work–in making this case probably are guilty, too (though they can plead for themselves).

I prefer to think that we made a consistent, coherent and persuasive argument. Some eloquent members of the State Senate looked at the data we presented and that presented by our much better-funded opponents in the pro-charter camp, and decided that we were correct. Their arguments against charter expansion were able to knock the colleagues off the fence, but in the right direction.

I was working when the final debate happened in the Senate, but, thankfully, many of the people who had been making the argument supporting quality education for ALL students were in the gallery. They heard some passionate speeches in favor of charter expansion, but, thankfully, they heard more from Senators who had come to question the wisdom of this bill. Among those speakers was Senator Pat Jehlen, who represents Cambridge, Medford, Somerville and Winchester, a district that is home to several charter schools. After summarizing some of the things that concerned her about charter schools, Jehlen said:  

There are ways of reducing the achievement gap that have been proven, e.g. early childhood education. We should really spending our money on methods that are proven.

Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton echoed Jehlen’s sentiments by suggesting that:

We’ve essentially created a two-tiered public education system. Shouldn’t we make some investments that will go to all students in the Commonwealth.

MisinformationIt’s always tempting to suggest that people who don’t agree with one’s opinion have been the victims of manipulation and misinformation. I hesitate to hurl the first stone on that one. That said, I think that, despite the efforts of a prosperous pro-charter lobby, at least some policy makers in Massachusetts have decided that we need to take a closer look at how charters are affecting our entire education system before we buy into more of them.

Anyone who thinks that one vote in the Senate is going to turn around the charter juggernaut hasn’t been paying attention. The Globe will keep editorializing in support of charters, Paul Grogan will sign more checks and the MPCSA will continue to mobilize well-meaning people who don’t see a place for their children in traditional public schools.  In the long run, the way to stop the charter train will be to ensure that public school districts provide Quality Education for Every Student.


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Blog Launch Redux

Parent Imperfect:

Former Denver school board member turns to blogging to share her frustration with ed reform in her city.

Originally posted on Kaplan for Kids:

Blog Launch for Kaplan for Kids

Fifty seven charter schools (57), seventy five percent (75%) housed in taxpayer owned or leased facilities. Fifty two percent (52%) of taxpayer approved new schools money going to two Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). Forty percent (40%) of schools non-union. These are the outcomes Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg must be looking at when he repeatedly declares education reform is a success in Denver. He certainly can’t be looking at the academic outcomes.

My name is Jeannie Kaplan. I had the honor and privilege of serving on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education for 8 years, from 2005 through November 2013. Michael Bennet was superintendent, having been selected in June of 2005. Mr. Bennet served until January 2009 when he was selected to be the junior Senator from Colorado. His replacement was and continues to be Tom Boasberg, Michael’s childhood friend and former…

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The race from reading

keep calm and read a bookThe Parent Imperfect just received a web link that has led to this harried post. It is “21 young adult books for those who are “so over” dystopias.” This great list comes from Sarah Ang, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. I want to share that before I go off on another PI tangent.

The list came to me just after a long session of going over old photographs in hopes of collecting a few for dear Liz on Mother’s Day. Among them were a surprising number of images of Vince or Connie sitting or laying somewhere reading a book. Sadly, those feel a bit like my dog-eared photos of myself playing baseball or tennis…memories of a bygone era.

It’s hard to imagine that I ever took for granted the tendency of both kids to disappear into books for long periods of time. It wasn’t that long ago when Connie would quite often come to me saying, “!Papi…TIENES que leer este libro!”  I’d smile and say that I would surely read whatever book she had just devoured so that we could talk about it, but I seldom made the time to do so. (Too much time blogging…)
Want to hang out

What used to be a family of voracious readers-for-fun has become Liz, still reading a couple of books a week, mostly before going to sleep. While Liz must be careful that a book doesn’t keep her up all night, they have become the PI’s NyQuil. Vince and Connie still read quite a bit, but reading has become exclusively part of the ongoing torment of too much homework that stands at the center of the teaching philosophy at the nation’s oldest public school (Yes, we knew that the place worships at the altar of homework when we sent them there). At about 11PM one night this week, Connie said much too loudly (screamed, really), “I can’t stand it! They give me so much fricking (chosen advisedly) homework…why are they doing this? They take away from you any interest in learning or reading because all you have time to do is so much homework!”

Now, Connie’s protests happen in a context, a context in which she refuses to let go of interests that she developed when schoolwork was a minor irritation. Her insistence in continuing to pursue these interests means that she often doesn’t get to her homework until 8PM.

overscheduledAnd the parental guidance? The parents were clear that she was going to do less extra-curricular stuff this first year at BLS, but this past week she had a soccer game, two soccer practices, two softball games, softball practice, dance class, piano class and piano practice (another casualty). She somehow also found time to babysit once and spend a little time with friends. We often look longingly upon those families whose children have each decided that they are going to focus on doing one single thing outside of their schoolwork, and do it very well. Connie rebels against this idea and, to date, her parents have yet to be willing to storm the barricades.

The other factor in the race from reading is, of course, the turn to screens of all sorts. We vigilantly kept Vince out of this world well into his teen years, but his life is now fully backlit. The limits we fought for years to maintain have slowly faded away as he approaches the time when he, alone, will need to decide if he ever wants to stop playing that game or watching that movie.  Connie, the future litigator, has argued that allowing technological parity is the only just path for her beleaguered parents. We have not caved to that level, but she has access to much more of the wired world at age 12 than her dear brother had when he turned 16.

Soccer games and piano practice are not, therefore, the only reason that homework is delayed and books gather dust on cluttered shelves. Given even a few minutes of free time, both Vince and Connie turn to that bizarre world of “constant, but not quite” communication, in which a student this week made a “generic threat” against the nation’s oldest public school (After letting us know this troubling news, the Headmaster’s robo call went on to assure parents that “at no time was any member of the Boston Latin community in any danger…”). All in a week’s work…

And so it is that we continue to scatter books around the house and then pay library fines when the books slip beneath the piles. We continue to rage against the machine, even as more of them appear in our midst. What evil demon keeps bringing them in here?

Through it all, these kids get up at 6AM (almost) every day to, once again, drink from the fire hose. It doesn’t feel right, and complaints abound, but no one seems willing to force a discussion about making a real change.




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The School Culture Vulture Swoops

Hennigan School collageSince the identity of the Parent Imperfect is now well-known to many around the BPS, a good number of people contact me offline with questions about things. I seldom have the answers, but can occasionally connect people with someone who can answer their question.

Very occasionally, someone reaches out on the blog for help with something they are trying to deal with. Today, I got a comment in the “PI Reviews” section of the blog that contained just such a question (even though there was no question mark on it). “Virginia from Roslindale” said:

I need help creating healthy culture at the hennigan .
Virginia in Roslindale

Those few words have been the stuff of many conversations, over the years. This is, of course, THE question for parents who want to be engaged with our kids’ schools. It says that the culture, or the patterns in the way people live together (or don’t) within a school determines how our kids and everyone else will experience the place. Since we want our kids (and all others, presumably) to have a positive experience in their schools, we want to do what we can to contribute to a respectful and positive in-school culture at the schools our kids attend.

Hennigan MuralThat seems pretty straightforward, but it is anything but simple. The culture of a school reflects both the cultures that everyone (kids, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, etc.) brings to school with them, as well as the idiosyncratic patterns of behavior that the school community develops, all on its own. School leadership (the Principal and his/her administration) has a lot to do with the school culture, but they certainly don’t make it alone. Each of the groups in the school influences what goes on inside, and a pretty small group of people who really want to change school culture (the principal and his/her allies a the school, a determined group of teachers, an organized group of parents, etc.) can occasionally make that happen. Anyone who has been watching the Boston Public Schools has seen examples of schools whose cultures have changed pretty dramatically (for better or for worse, depending on your perspective) over a short period of time.

Changes in culture pretty quickly change the way the school gets talked about in the community, and, before you know it, the composition of the school community begins to change, too. A few years ago, something about the culture at the Hennigan began to send a message to the Somali community in Boston that it was a place to send their children, and one began to see more mothers and girls wearing head scarves in the school. In a school system with complex dynamics around race, ethnicity, gender and class, these changes in culture and community can come with lots of emotional baggage. They can also create tension in the school and the larger community. Whether or not I feel that the changes in my child’s school culture are “positive” depends a lot on my own culture and what I want for my child’s school.

Hennigan libraryWhen Connie went to the Hennigan, we hoped to be part of a school community like the one we had experienced at the Hernández, and to contribute what we could to that community. I started “showing up” at the school, trying to connect any way I could, and to find a way to contribute. Liz immediately volunteered to be on the School Site Council. Nobody ever said, “No, thanks,” but, even in our blissful cluelessness, we began to get the message that we were not going to be part of the social network that really influenced the way things happened at the school. Since we were very likely going to be at the school for one year, that reaction to our efforts to insert ourselves into the school community wasn’t that hard to understand.

There was definitely a school community at the Hennigan, but it was completely different than the one we experienced at the Hernández. The Hennigan community had its culture, some of which seemed quite positive, while other aspects of the culture seemed pretty negative to us. Other aspects of the way the school worked were completely mysterious to us, and we never figured them out. In any case, we came to focus on connecting to Connie’s teacher and some of the parents of her classmates, in an effort to make her own little world at the school a better place for her.

Hennigan AWCIn the two years since we were at the Hennigan, things seems to have changed quite a bit. The BPS website still says that the school is a K-5 school, but I understand that the BPS has decided to make it a K-8 school, which will include adding a Grade 6 Advanced Work Class. If implemented, this will mean a HUGE change in the school culture. Incorporating Grades 6, 7 and 8 into the school will make it a completely different place. The composition of the school has not changed a lot (still has large Somali, African American and English Language Learner populations), but the composition of the AWC class does seem to have changed as the program has become more popular among a broader group of West Zone parents.
Hennigan high five

Virginia is asking for the thoughts of others about how to contribute, as a parent, to building positive culture at the school. I know that some readers of the PI know a lot about the Hennigan, and others who don’t know the Hennigan have done a lot of thinking about changing school culture. Are you willing to share some ideas with Virginia? I’m sure she’d be happy to see comments from people here, on the blog, or to be in contact with people offline. I’m not going to share her contact info here, but I can probably facilitate contact if you have ideas about parents building school culture that you’d prefer to share privately. Just let me know, here or privately. I think the “contact form” below is set up to allow you to do that.

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Not just another April vacation

QuitoIt’s been some time since the Parent Imperfect answered a phone call with such anticipation. At 7:09 this morning, Vince called from the airport in Houston to check in. That was the first we have known of him since he boarded a United flight in Boston nine days ago for a trip to Ecuador organized by the Spanish program at the nation’s oldest public school. After saying hello, he immediately reported that he’s “still alive.” He must know what was on the mind of his always calm and confident father. Hearing his voice was reassuring, even though the first thing he told his mother was that the only problem on the trip was that he had caught malaria. Where did he get this sense of humor? Otovalo

He’s been away from home for extended periods several times before, but this one was different…really different. He was going to be in Quito, in Otovalo and then in the Ecuadorian Amazon, seeing sights and spending a few days helping to construct a school in a small, indigenous town. The school did this with an educational tour business that exists, first of all, to make a profit, but also to keep kids safe and stimulated doing travel that just might change their lives. This is a serious operation that gets paid serious $$$ (cause for parental pause) for what it does, but, having organized such trips in El Salvador for a couple of years, I’m too familiar with the dangers inherent in the best planned trips.

He still has to get from Houston to Boston, but it was very good to hear his voice. In the middle of the week, Liz’s phone rang one night at about 12:15AM. She arose from a sound sleep and got to the phone, but the Caller ID number was so strange that she hesitated, and then the call was gone. We still don’t know if the call had anything to do with Vince’s trip (he probably won’t tell us, if it did), but it certainly got my attention, as I skated through the week firmly resting on the “no news is good news” theory of travel communication.

It’s all about payback. We insisted that he heed the organizers’ warning not to bring a cellphone with him, which he thought was ridiculous. As we waved the rules at him, Vince assured us that, once again, he would be the only one whose parents paid attention to what the rules said. That seems to have been the case, as he called us from Logan on two different phones and his call from Houston was on a third friend’s phone.


Amazon villageSo, Vince did make it back, with a sun tan, a few less pounds and many stories about what seemed to be a really important trip for him. The trip took him from the modern capital city to a smaller, prosperous indigenous city to a tiny village in the Amazon. When asked what he’ll remember forever about the trip, he mentioned three things: the Ecuadorians who guided the trip (“they were so friendly and knowledgeable and you could tell they were people who really cared about their country”), the apparent happiness of the young people in the village living in what seemed to him to be impossibly difficult conditions and the cockroaches, which were at least four times the size of any insect he had ever seen. He also really enjoyed being “on a 10-day sleepover with 15 other kids (and NO parents).” In the midst of it all, he claims that Spanish came to him with surprising ease. The guides who “made the trip” for him spoke only Spanish and (in one case) Quechua.

And, just like that, he’s very quickly back into the pressurized environment of the school that made this trip possible, and now threatens to wipe it from his memory. The relaxed and slightly awestruck young man that stepped off the plane is still with us, but he’s looking more and more like a BLS junior who doesn’t know when he’ll have time to get it all done. I suppose it’s our job to keep that junior at bay, at least for a little while.




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“Zombie” bill angers public school parents

zombie billThe Parent Imperfect took the time this past Wednesday to write that no deal had been reached on the bill to lift the cap on charter schools in our state. Normally, the failure of a bill to get a positive recommendation from the relevant committee would be the kiss of death, at least for the current session. But this is not just any bill. As many feared, the failure to gain the support of the Joint Education Committee created only a minor annoyance for the drive to create open season on charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

Little did I know that the people in the Massachusetts Legislature who feel that lifting the charter cap is the critical next step in educational reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wait 24 hours to resurrect the idea. Before Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz could even communicate with her constituents about what had happened, her illustrious Joint Ed Committee Co-Chair, Rep. Alice Peisch, had done the deed. The State Rep. from Wellesley created a new bill with a new number and without the language on charter reimbursements that so bothered charter growth proponents. Under the new bill, there would be no cap on charter expansion, even if the Legislature declined to reimburse even one cent of its legal obligation to school districts for charter tuition payments. The maneuver made a joke of all of the hand wringing around a supposed compromise on the original bill.

Citizens for Public Schools called the new Peisch bill a “zombie” bill, which I think nicely captures the nature of the legislation. Not only did Rep. Peisch produce the zombie bill in record time (it was certainly being drafted as the compromise charade was underway), but she managed to get it approved by a voice vote at a sparsely attended session of the House of Representatives (is there a roll call in the House?). I disagree completely with what Ms. Peisch did, but you have to admire her cheek.

More and stopPeisch delivered to charter proponents what Sen. Chang-Díaz had refused to give them…legislation to remove the cap on charter expansion with almost no conditions. In less that 24 hours, public school districts and the families who depend on public schools had been “peisched.” That is, outmaneuvered by a legislator with a strong personal commitment to education reform, and little or no sense of accountability to urban public school districts and the families that need them. A reasonable person might ask if Rep. Peisch’s alleged personal involvement with charter and other educational reform organizations might create a conflict of interest, or at least a conflict of conscience for her on this issue.  One might wonder such things, but, in Massachusetts, such questions often go unanswered. Any conflict here would, of course, pale in comparison to the conflicts that abound in our “government by checkbook” at all levels.

The Peisch bill still must clear several hurdles to become law. The Senate must approve it and the Governor must sign it to name two such hurdles. Charter expansion obviously has as many powerful friends in the Legislature as it has outside of it, and the governor has expressed few reservations about creating more charters. That said, the public discussion of this bill has educated many in the community, as well as some in the media and more than a few members of the Legislature about the lack of accountability of charters and the financial and other pressures on public schools that result from charter growth. This is not a slam dunk.

Merely getting peisched one time will not keep these people from continuing to make their views known. I remain hopeful that the zombie bill–or at least the charter cap provision–can be put on hold. For the umpteenth time, I do not oppose charter schools or think existing schools should be closed down. They should be more accountable on many issues, and their number should not be significantly expanded until policymakers understand much better (and address in a policy) the impact of such expansion on traditional public schools and their students. Ultimately, if we want to establish a separate system of essentially independent schools, we should find another way to finance those schools that does not drain financial and political support from public school districts.

If you are concerned about the zombie bill, take a few minutes and contact your State Representative and/or State Senator on the matter. If you’re not clear who this is, it’s easy to find your legislators and their contact information.


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No Deal on Charter Cap

Charter demoThe Parent Imperfect arose to the news that the cap on charter school expansion in Massachusetts remains in place, at least for the moment. Boston. com reports that last minute efforts to push through a compromise crafted by legislators apparently could not gain enough support in the Joint Committee on Education.

The bill will now leave the Committee with a negative recommendation. It is still possible for both the House and the Senate to vote on a bill not recommended by a committee, but this is a rare occurrence in Massachusetts politics. If Massachusetts keeps charter limits in place, it will be bucking a national trend toward rapid charter expansion, regardless of the cost of such growth to public school districts.

While I did not think that the compromise worked out by Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes would have been a step forward for public education in the Commonwealth, Chang-Díaz, in particular, deserves credit for holding the line on her insistence that a lifting of the charter cap be accompanied by a State House commitment to fully reimburse school districts for charter tuition payments.

Opponents of lifting the cap will awaken happy that the current limits remain in place, but we have certainly not heard the last of this issue. If it holds, this failure of charter proponents to gain support for further charter expansion may improve the BPS budget picture in the medium run. Even so, the district still faces serious problems with its 2015 budget,  which will be voted on by the School Committee tonight. Many questions also remain concerning the District’s new school assignment process, which has yet to prove that it can provide equitable access to quality education for all the City’s children.

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