To Cap or Not to Cap?

CandidatesAll those who were hoping that the Parent Imperfect had finally folded his tent and found something really useful to do with his time are in for a disappointment. I’m back! As our children get older, it becomes more difficult to figure out what one can really write about parenting them. This spring, we were in the particularly strange situation of (once more) reaching the end of our rope with one child’s experience at the nation’s oldest public school, even as our other child was preparing to follow in her big brother’s footsteps.

The crisis passed (sort of), school ended and we’ve managed to spend almost two full months without uttering the letters B-L-S in sequence. But sooner or later, even the most determined ostrich must lift his head from the sand and face the new year with the hope that springs eternal.

Over the summer, the attention of many parents has turned to the race for mayor of Boston, where 12 candidates are still out there trying to get someone’s attention. According to a recent poll, 40% of the voters have yet to make up their minds.

What to do about the city’s public education troubles has certainly been a big issue in the campaign. After leading the system through a bruising discussion of a new school assignment system, Dr. Carol Johnson has resigned her post and many other BPS leaders have also decided that it is time for a change. Not surprisingly, even as he departs Mayor Menino has determined the tone of the discussion with his proposal (and legislation) suggesting the removal of the current cap on charter schools. Given the range of feelings about charters in the city, this proposal has quickly become the center of the education discussion.

By focusing on charters, we are, once again, finding a way to avoid discussing the core challenges of improving the public schools. Charters proponents insist that they are outperforming the traditional public schools. Maybe, but those who are looking closely at these claims see reason to wonder about the truth of the matter. Even the most enthusiastic boosters of charters acknowledge that they don’t work for everyone, and, therefore, can’t be seen as the answer for a system that must, by definition, at least try to provide quality education to every child.

UPS and Fedex do a good job making certain kinds of deliveries (at a profit), but they have no interest in delivering every piece of mail to every address, every day (except Sunday). Part of the financial crisis of the USPS has resulted from “creaming” by UPS, Fedex, etc.  Sorry if that seems like a digression, but my twisted mind sees a connection. As charters schools grow and find those students able to function (and sometimes flourish) in their environment, the “traditional” public schools must continue to educate those children who don’t function as well in the charter environment, or aren’t invited to “Advanced Work.”

Charter growthPersonally, I’m not “against’ charters. I am troubled by the “chain schools” run by for-profit companies, but I know several very dedicated educators who have devoted their lives and careers to building charter schools. I’ve seen the striking limitations of the public schools and I’ve also seen that many families who felt completely screwed by the BPS have found an alternative in the charters that they are willing to fight for. For one group of families (mine, for example), the “AWC-Exam School Pipeline” has been that alternative (sort of). For others, the charters have played that role. Many other families have tried the charter route, only to find themselves among the “silent majority” of charter attendees who end up back in the public schools, or out of school, altogether.

In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, mayoral candidate John Barros defended his support for lifting the cap on charters. the majority of the candidates agree with him on this issue. He said that the fight to keep the cap is “the wrong battle at the wrong time.” For Barros, people have lost that fight in every city around the country, and will lose it in Boston, too. Their energy would be must better used in efforts to “level the playing field” and restore confidence in the traditional public schools by making them better serve the children now flocking to charters. I understand that among his current and potential supporters, Barros has many families who are frustrated with the BPS and can’t get their child into a strong charter school. Those families want more charters, even in the face of the evidence that over half of the kids that get into charter schools (especially boys of color) eventually get kicked back into the public system as students who couldn’t conform to the regimented culture of many of the top charters. I’d like to see a study of what happens to those children, over time. They too, are part of the charter experiment.

Faced with the same question about the cap, at-large City Council candidate (and BPS teacher), Annissa Essaibi had a different answer. “If they want that for their children and can’t get a charter seat in Boston, let them try a charter in Cambridge. There are open spots in charter schools in Cambridge. If charters get free rein to expand in Boston, it will take resources away from those children who have stuck with our public schools.” I was reminded of the impressive young woman from Roxbury who is working with my program at Northeastern this summer. She is on her way to college in Atlanta after graduating from a charter high school in Cambridge that she says turned her life around. She notes with sadness that only 32 students of her original class of 80 walked with her at graduation.

I don’t expect that charter schools in Cambridge are the answer for most families in Dorchester or Mattapan, but I share the fear about what happens to the traditional public schools if the charter cap is lifted. I also share John Barros’ wish to level the playing field, but how level will it be with resources and attention rushing to charters once the Legislature declares that it’s open season on those “private-like” schools? Why not let in-district charter schools expand to the extent that they meet certain benchmarks related to graduation rates or successful education of Special Needs Students or English Language Learners? The public schools live with all sorts of benchmarks…why not the charters?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “To Cap or Not to Cap?

  1. Great article! A couple things I thought might interest you:

    FYI – yesterday I spent a great deal of time researching (via BPS budget, MADESE reports etc UGH!) exactly how much BPS has to pay for CS students: out of $108+ Million owed to charter schools BPS only gets state reimbursement for $22Million dollars – meaning BPS has to pay $86+Million out of its own budget to send Boston students to charter schools. I found this information when a person who favors charter schools and raising the cap argued that actually *BPS* is making a profit by sending our students to charter schools. The argument this person made is that because BPS receives state reimbursement for the money they pay to the CS and those students are now at a charter school, BPS actually makes a profit. I spent time with the state laws, docs and reports from MADESE of exact reimbursement amounts made to each district and pulled it all out to get the above actual numbers (and double-checked their math too) to disprove the conclusion they had come up with – which the evidence clearly shows is incorrect. Unfortunately, the person had failed to realize that the reimbursement amounts have changed since they last looked at it and districts are now only receiving a small portion of reimbursement from the state, which means we are draining our resources more than most folks realize.

    In that same data I pulled the report on sending districts’ per-pupil amount per charter school etc (which I won’t get into), but through that report I would like to add on to what Annissa said (I really like her!). BPS pays to send Boston students to charters in yes, Boston (7,216 students, 21 Commonwealth charter schools) and Cambridge (330 students), but also other places much further away like Marlborough (1 student), Foxborough (4 students), Plymouth (2 students), Fitchburg (1 student), Somerville (31 students) and Everett (50 students, 2 charter schools). So, Boston students are able to not only go to Boston based Commonwealth charters, but as the MADESE report clearly shows, parents seem to be able to apply to any charter school they want to in the state (admissions policy allowing of course), and if the child is accepted then BPS must pay to send the students to it. Haven’t even begun the research on how transportation is factored for those really far away CC schools – if anything like special ed agreements with parents I suspect parents agree to transport and BPS pays mileage to parents instead of busing them.

    I would suggest, for those who may not be aware of exactly what the disparities and issues are surrounding charter schools and are interested in the background, that they should read The Facts About Charter Schools No One Tells You: http://westroxbury.patch.com/groups/karen-kasts-blog/p/the-facts-about-charter-schools-that-no-one-tells-you.

  2. You definitely get the award, Karen, for wading through all those statistics to get to some really important information. Ironically, what you say the BPS is paying to send children to charters is almost exactly what the system pays to transport its Boston children, many of them to charters. I was aware that Boston was paying to send students to Cambridge charters, but Fitchburg? Everett??

    I’ll read your article about the facts later. I look forward to it.

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