The Parent Imperfect has a strong sense that the fix is in on lifting the cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. I fear that the fix will leave public school districts with less resources to educate the vast majority of students in the state that will always attend traditional public schools. As always, the kids will pay the price of a bad “compromise.” The Dorchester Reporter reported yesterday that Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes have reached a compromise to lift the current legal limit on charter expansion (the charter cap).
It’s important to note that this is a compromise between two legislators intent on raising the cap, and charter boosters in the community, like the Mass Public Charter Schools Association and Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation. I have nothing against either legislator: It just seems important to be honest about what has happened. Parents, teachers and concerned members of the community who don’t want to see the cap lifted were conspicuously absent from the debate and the compromise.
As we write here, 2130 people have signed an electronic petition circulated by the Boston parent group, Quality Educaton for Every Student to the Senator and her house Co-Chair of the Joint Education Committee, Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley. The petition does not stake out an “anti-charter” position, but simply says that it makes no sense to divert more money from public school districts at a time when many of the most challenged districts face serious budgetary problems. This year, 42% of state funding to education in Boston went to charter schools educating about 13% of Boston’s students. What will that percentage be when charters have 20% of students in the City? How many teachers will get laid off that year? The compromise apparently gives this concern a nod, but then goes forward to lift the charter cap, anyway.
For now, all we know about the deal is what the dealers say about it. Rumor has it that a vote will come on Tuesday, so we’ll know more then. Sen. Chang Diaz’s office released a statement trumpeting the fact that the deal includes a commitment to pull the plug on charter growth if the Legislature doesn’t fulfill its legal responsibility to reimburse districts for funds diverted from those districts to pay charter school tuition. That’s very nice, but it hardly seems like a stunning victory for schoolchildren that we are obliging the State House to follow its own laws.
At the base of this so-called “third way” is the perception that we need, at all costs, a “safety valve” for families who believe that the Boston Public Schools are not educating their children well. According to this argument, more charters will offer more such families such a choice. I know families in this situation. You probably do, too. They truly believe that a charter school has saved their child (or children), and some of those families definitely want more charters to open. I also know that charters have proven to be a very unreliable safety valve for many of those same families. Proportionally, charters educate way fewer English Language learners and students with special needs than the public schools, who must take everyone. Fully half of the students who turn to these schools as an alternative can’t adjust to the charter environment and end up back in traditional public schools (or out of school, entirely). At a meeting with BPS parents last week, Sen. Chang-Díaz acknowledged these concerns and promised language in her compromise that would demand charter accountability around just these issues. Her statement mentions no such language in the final bill. I hope the language just slipped the minds of those spinning the compromise.
If charter schools are a safety valve, then they make for an expensive and leaky valve at a time when urban districts like the BPS are under tremendous budget pressure. Rather than divert resources to a separate system of schools with precious little accountability, let’s focus our efforts on changing the way business is done at Court Street and on continuing to improve Boston’s schools, one at a time. I just don’t see an alternative if we want to offer Boston’s students great educational choices. Step one along this path will be the selection of a new Boston School Superintendent who understands the problems faced by the BPS, and possesses a vision that can mobilize all stakeholders to tackle those problems.
The Globe reports that charter boosters are unhappy with the Holmes/Chang-Díaz compromise, because it places even weak conditions on the charter expansion fiesta to come. The pro-charter lobby smells blood and thinks it is in a position to get everything it wants. They may well be overplaying their hand.
Make you want to holler? Take a moment to read and sign the Quest petition. Then HOLLER!