Category Archives: Charter Schools

Ravings about the charter school phenomenon.

A Good Night for #NoOn2

school-committee-votesThe Parent Imperfect hadn’t been to a meeting of the Boston School Committee for a while before last night. Long gone are the days in the dank chamber on Court Street, but last night something had changed that was much more important than the room. The energy in the room around the Committee’s deliberations was completely different.

On the agenda last night was a resolution to oppose Question 2, the charter school piñata. To the shock of many, the Committee voted UNANIMOUSLY to oppose Question 2. By the time members commented on the resolution, the meeting had turned into a competition to see who could speak most strongly against it.  You just had to pinch yourself to be sure you were really in Dudley Square.

I’ve been to a lot of meetings where charter schools were discussed, including hearings where the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was considering the application of one or more new charter schools. Last night’s meeting at the Bolling Building made it very clear that something really important has changed in the energy around the charter school discussion in Boston and (I hope) in Massachusetts.

young-peopleDifferent people will describe the change differently, but, for me, the change comes from the energy and voice of young people in the discussion. At too many of those BESE meetings, the only young people in the room were well-organized attendees of charter schools. While they never actually said a lot in the meetings, their presence spoke volumes.

Now the story is another one. Young people, many of whom became active around the BPS budget cuts that have come down every year, have taken a hold of the movement to protect and improve public education, and that movement won’t soon be the same. I don’t know if they will succeed in countering all of the money that is flowing into pro-charter coffers, but they certainly have flipped the conversation in Boston.

While Committee members were surely more attuned to the youth voices in the meeting, a few non-youth also offered testimony. One bit of that testimony is included below, just to give you a sense of the flavor of the discussion. The names are changed to protect those who are anything but innocent.

Thanks to the Committee for the opportunity to comment tonight, and to everyone else who cares enough about education to be here.

I’m a resident of Roslindale, a BPS parent for 16 years and a member of Quest (Quality Education for Every Student).

It can come as no surprise to anyone that Quest is firmly in support of the clearest and strongest possible School Committee resolution against Question 2, the charter school piñata. Yours will not be a resolution against charter schools, the students who attend them, or the parents who choose them for their children. It will be a resolution questioning the policy of using scarce public funds to build a separate, but unequal, system of privately-managed, privately-governed schools.

The information provided at your last meeting offered a conservative assessment of the financial damage that will be wrought by this initiative, if successful. In addition, the charter expansion favored by our governor will reduce the resources available for educating vulnerable populations in the BPS. It will also exclude the voices of students, parents and even you, The Boston School Committee from some of the most important decisions to be made about education in our city in the coming years. And, finally, in the end a Yes vote on Question 2 will mean more school closings in the city, an eventuality that will surely have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

We are hopeful and confident that tonight you will become the 158th school committee in the Commonwealth to go on record against this tragically wrong-headed policy initiative. In such situations, my friends in El Salvador were always fond of saying, “Nunca es tarde.”  It’s never too late.

We thank you in advance for taking a stand against Question 2, but we must conclude asking if you have each done all you can to see that our public schools are defended? Have you each spoken out publically on the issue? Have you contacted people in your own social and professional networks and engaged them in conversation about the dangers of this initiative? Has any one of you taken the time to walk door-to-door in one of our neighborhoods to share your views on this issue with the people behind those doors who really want to do the right thing? If not, I very seriously invite you to join me on just such a walk, in Roslindale, this weekend.

Regardless of how you got into those seats, you are the leadership of our public schools. As such, you deserve our respect and our gratitude for your service. In the same way, the parents, students, teachers and staff of the Boston Public Schools need, deserve and EXPECT your full, unqualified support on this issue. Thank you.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

Question 2: A Conscious “No”

public-funds-for-public-schoolsThis weekend, the Parent Imperfect finally got out and knocked on peoples’ doors to talk to them about Question 2, the November referendum question that, if approved, will lead to a much bigger charter school sector in Massachusetts. I had hoped that Connie might accompany me on this walk with the Save Our Public Schools campaign, but she isn’t yet ready for that. I think she’s quite clear about what she thinks about Question 2, but the idea of going door-to-door with her father, for any reason, is not the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday.

My canvassing partner and myself knocked on fifty-five doors in the Neponset area of Dorchester. Most people weren’t home on Saturday morning (no surprise), and many who were home don’t answer their doors to strangers on Saturday mornings. Those who answered the doors and engaged with us agreed with us on the issue by a 3-1 margin. We found only one man who was undecided about Question 2. We even had two people pull their cars to the curb to tell us that they understood that more charter schools would take more money away from the public schools, which they saw as a bad thing. I didn’t sense that most of these people were “against” charters, they just saw that the way they are funded pits them against the public schools that are the only answer for the majority of kids. The “drain on public schools” argument was all they needed.

showing-upIn other parts of my life, I’ve been getting a slightly different argument. Many good people who consider themselves to be quite liberal are convinced that people of “conscience” should vote in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools. For these voters (and these are people who will vote), our public schools have denied children of color an equal education, so we need to do all we can to offer those children and their families options to get the education they need. According to this way of thinking, a “Yes” vote on Question 2 will see that children get those options.

Behind this opinion is the idea that the African-American community supports more charter schools. Some important African-American leaders, including President Obama, speak quite passionately in favor of charter schools. Charter advocates never miss an opportunity to show that many of their supporters are African-American students and parents who have apparently benefited from charter schools.

My friends of conscience are correct that public education has failed to provide adequate education to many children of color in this country. They are also correct that some charters have provided better education to some of the children of color they have served. But at what cost?

the-argument-againstThe argument against Question 2 is not an argument against charter schools, or a criticism of any family that has pursued that option for their children. Like public schools, charter schools are a mixed bag. Some of them have achieved very impressive results, while others aren’t doing their job. The argument against Question 2 is an argument against further expansion of an alternative private system of schools that is draining money out of the public schools that must educate all children, including the vast majority of African-American children. There are other issues with charters–discipline policies, high suspension rates, treatment of teachers, failure to serve Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners, lack of oversight, etc., etc., etc.–but the “financial drain” issue is the one that seems to upset most people about further charter expansion.

The African-American community (as well as the Latino community and the Asian community) holds different points of view on this issue, as it does on all issues. Boston City Councillor, Tito Jackson, has taken a strong position in favor of a “No” vote on question 2. This summer he and fellow councillor, Matt O’Malley proposed a City Council resolution on the issue, and all but two council members voted to make a public statement against Question 2 because of the financial drain it would represent for the City of Boston. At the national level, during its convention this summer, the NAACP membership voted to support a national “moratorium” on charter schools until a number of problems with the schools can be addressed. At a very local and personal level, almost half of the people who set aside a beautiful Saturday morning to knock on doors with me yesterday were African-Americans concerned about Question 2.

Of course, none of this means that “the African-American community is united against Question 2.” It means that the community, like all other communities, is of a mixed mind on the issue. It also means that there is no easy answer for people committed to racial justice who are trying to figure out how to vote on this issue. The desire to provide equal educational opportunity for all children is a great one. I share that ambition, but my own study of the charter school issue suggests that more charters–as promised by Question 2–will not further than noble goal.

Please take the time to look beyond the “optics” of this issue, as presented on TV,  to determine for yourself the likely impact of the charter school expansion on public school systems across the Commonwealth. If you take that time, I think you’ll see that there is every reason for a person of conscience, concerned about racial justice to color in the little box saying “No on Question 2.”

mel-kingDefeating Question 2 is important, but it will certainly not resolve the issue of Quality Education for Every Student. As veteran organizer and political leader, Mel King, said at a meeting last winter hosted by the NAACP at a church in Roxbury, “It isn’t enough to raise concerns about the charter schools. People want us to do something about the problems of the public schools, and they are right.” Amen.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

Trouble, trouble, charter bubble…

Student MarchTiming is everything in life. On the very same day that thousands of Boston public school students walked out of school to go to the Massachusetts State House to advocate for their schools, the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on various bills related to charter school expansion. Occasionally the stars are truly aligned. Some of the students in the photo above made their way into the hearing room and gave powerful testimony on the connection between charter  school expansion and budget cuts at their schools. Some members of the committee fidgeted, others paid close attention. Then, a non-student gave the following testimony, made available to the Parent Imperfect by a special exclusive arrangement. Since time wouldn’t allow him to say the whole thing in the hearing, we share it here.
There are all sorts of arguments for and against charter schools, but I want to share one today that has not gotten a lot of attention. It’s based on a recent article by four highly-respected academics that appeared in the University of Richmond Law Review. The article is called, “Are We Heading Toward A Charter School Bubble?: Lessons From the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis.”  The basic argument is quite simple.
 
charter bubbleGovernment at all levels did a lot of things to make it easier for people to get mortgages in the run-up to the subprime crisis. The so-called market was more than happen to oblige. A key factor in the creation of the bubble was that the people approving the mortgages (the originators) had no skin in the game. They could care less if the borrowers could pay back the loans: Their job was to write mortgages.
 
The explosive growth of charter schools has some disturbing things in common with the subprime mortgage mess. Those who are authorizing more charter schools and more seats in existing schools have little or nothing to lose, personally, if the schools fail our children. They also have little understanding of the pressures present in the charter market.
 
Now the subprime mortgage market was a license to print money, until it wasn’t. Then the bubble popped. What forces might put charter schools in the same sort of vulnerable position as subprime mortgage holders?
 
The charter school business model depends on many things going right for them, but three stand out:
 
Public funds for public schools1. They need a steady stream of public money, approved by public office holders and delivered by state bureaucracies. Are you sure that you will have the funds to grow charter schools at even the reduced rate of growth proposed by my dear mayor…let alone what the governor is talking about? I don’t need to remind you that the foundation budget for education in the Commonwealth is in the process of being re-evaluated for the first time in decades and that Massachusetts Law requires Chapter 42 reimbursement of some of the funds going to charters. The price tag contains many hidden costs. Will you  have the political will (not to mention the cash money) to continue to divert ever larger amounts of public money to charter schools as public schools disintegrate before your eyes? If not, the charter experiment is in trouble, especially if the numbers of charters continue to expand.
Gates2. But the charter business model doesn’t run on your money, alone. Charters schools also require a lot of private philanthropy to function. Until now, the Gates’s, the Waltons, the Broads and the Barrs (not to mention our own beloved Boston Foundation) have been ready to step up. Are you ready to make a bet that the private money will be available to float this bubble when there are two or three times as many charter schools? If the bloom on the charter rose even begins to fade, the monied few will drop charters like a bad habit. You’ve seen it happen before…many times.

3. But that’s not all. Charters are schools and schools need buildings. This is, perhaps, their biggest vulnerability. In Boston, our Mayor seems ready to turn public buildings over to charters at fire sale prices, which will give the bubble a new lease on life. Even if that new lease happens (lots of people will try to prevent it), charters will continue to need capital financing. Today, that financing happens only because the Federal government provides tens of millions of dollars annually in tax credits to encourage investors to put big money into charters, and then it guarantees payment of those loans so the risk to the investor in close to zero. No wonder the hedge funds are flocking to charters! A 39% tax credit? You know the fiscal environment in Washington better than I do. Are you sure that this cumbersome and costly mechanism will be able to provide capital financing for existing charters and all the new ones that could be coming on line? I’m not
 
Big shortThe sky is not falling, but four very smart analysts have concluded that there is reason to believe that we have a charter school bubble in our future. Are you clear enough about the endgame in the current charter mania to bet against these guys? If you do, you may secure yourself a place in the charter short version of The Big Short, coming to a theater near you. The futures of tens of thousands of school children across Massachusetts depend on you getting this right. Don’t pump up the charter bubble!

8 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

Why can’t all Fox news be like this?

For Every ChildThe Parent Imperfect has been consistently critical of the Boston Globe’s coverage of debates around the future of public education in Boston and the Commonwealth. In its editorials and signed columns, the Globe has consistently belittled elected officials and anyone else who failed to see the wisdom of continued expansion of the charter school sector, and the paper’s other pet policies. The day-to-day reporting on the topic has not been so monolithic, but has failed to capture the nuances of the equity arguments against education reform, as it is now being practiced. It is certainly not the Globe’s job to agree with me, but is it asking too much to hope that Boston’s most influential daily could at least offer a reasonable picture of opposing views?

Apparently not, as the December 4 Globe article entitled, “Walsh Taking Heat Over School Agenda,” by Jeremy Fox, took an important step in that direction. Even I can give credit where credit is due, and much credit is due here. If the article had one shortcoming, it focused a bit too much on a single parent group, QUEST. I am well aware of that organization’s importance, but there are actually a growing number of organizations, individuals and elected officials raising questions about Enroll Boston and other City Hall education policies. Focusing on a single organization justifies an attitude of “the dogs will bark, but the caravan rolls along,” among decision makers. But this is small potatoes, compared to value of this sort of reporting.

Fix Don't PrivatizeFor this article, Fox interviews both Mayor Walsh and Boston parents critical of what they see as the direction of his education policy. He then presents the opposing views in a way that captures what both sides are saying, without editorializing. Transcending the recent kerfluffle about the number school closings planned, the article reports what parents actually heard from the Mayor in a September 29 meeting at City Hall. I have it on very good (though imperfect) authority that the Mayor said, in talking about BPS facilities, that “We’re going to get down to ninety buildings.” That doesn’t suggest any particular number of school closings, but it certainly suggests a consolidation from the present use of 125 or 126 school buildings. When Fox asked the Mayor about those alleged remarks, rather than answer the question, the Mayor felt the need to deny that he has a plan to close schools. Thou doth protest too much…

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that the December 4 article also met the litmus test of all good journalism by providing a link to my own description of the raucous Jamaica Plain meeting concerning the Mayor’s proposal to unify charter and public school enrollment systems. That, too, was a Globe first. In all modesty, I do think that the link strengthened the article (and sent many newbys into the arms of the PI), but the clear presentation of both sides of the argument is what really distinguishes the piece.

LilliputThings are about to get even less polite in the public debate about the future of our public schools. Partners from three of Boston’s most prestigious (and deep-pocketed) law firms are moving forward with a suit charging the Commonwealth with civil rights violations for placing a cap on charter school growth. Our Governor and Education Secretary have proposed legislation that is more “bullish” on charter schools than anything the boldest charter school advocate would have dared to ask for, even two years ago. Charter school PR consultants are spinning at top speed in support of a ballot question designed to bludgeon the State Senate into submission on the question of the charter school cap. And against this troubling backdrop, the elected champion of Boston’s public schools shows every sign that he is out to earn his recent “Lifetime Achievement” award from the state’s charter school association. A formidable, multi-headed, giant is getting its bearings and piling up gold bars, but the Lilliputians are quietly untangling their ropes.

RumorsThe Globe article ends with a telling quote from Mayor Walsh. “It’s my understanding that QUEST is a parent organization…out there advocating for kids. We should stick to the advocacy for kids and not focus on rumors.” Ok…but just what “rumors” is the Mayor talking about? Is it the rumor that he said that “we’re going to get down to 90 buildings?” Or maybe its the rumor that he has proposed relaxing the cap on charter schools in Boston? Or the one that he is in favor putting important responsibilities around Boston school enrollment in the hands of a scantily qualified organization that operates with little or no public accountability? No, no, he’s probably referring to the rumor that documents obtained by Quest (from the Mayor’s office, by the way) refer to discussions regarding possible co-location of charters and public schools. Sorry, but I read all of these as related facts…dots to be connected, not rumors.

When important discussions are happening behind closed doors, and parents and other stakeholders get their information on a “need to know” basis, people will start to put together what they do know in an attempt to understand what’s going on. Errors may happen when people don’t have information, but more transparency and accountability, rather than criticism and tighter secrecy, is the way to clear up such misunderstandings.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools, School Assignment

What could be wrong with Unified School Enrollment?

UE FlyerThe Parent Imperfect has watched with concern the rapid rise of the idea of “Unified School Enrollment” in Boston. This idea is being presented as a proposal by the Boston School Compact (more about the Compact later). Overnight, this idea has gone from the big vat of ideas that get talked about, but never acted on, to one of Mayor Walsh’s main priorities. I wish it had continued to float in the vat. Marty did not support this idea in his campaign, but he is certainly behind it now. In fact, it feels as if he and his Education Advisor are driving it.

The idea is simply  to include Boston charter schools in the Boston Public Schools’ assignment lottery. Those schools would then appear in families’ “basket” of schools to which they are eligible to apply for their children. Rather than have to do a different application for each charter lottery, families could apply to charter schools through the BPS’s own Home-Based Assignment process.

What’s not to like? Rather than have to fill out a bunch of separate applications for their children, and then keep track of separate applications processes, parents can fill out a single application and then follow through on that one. Even an imperfect parent, has got to like that, right?

Wrong. My look below the spin on Unified Enrollment suggests that it’s something that is likely to cause more problems than it solves. When I see “Unified Enrollment,” I read,”Not really unified enrollment, based on a shaky foundation and mixing radically different schools together without giving the “customers” (us parents) the information we need to make such an important decision. ” Here’s why.

Is unified enrollment really “unified”?

First of all, charters will choose whether or not they want to be part of Unified Enrollment. Since the BPS Home-Based plan requires that access to schools be geographically restricted, charters will have to accept this “neighborhood” restriction in order to play. Because the law creating charters requires that they be either district-wide or regional, Unified Enrollment would require that the Massachusetts Legislature approve a “home rule” petition allowing Boston an exemption from this law. Assuming such a law could be passed (no sure thing), I would be willing to bet that some charters will say, “No, thank you. We quite like to be able to draw our students from the entire City of Boston. We don’t care to get entangled in the BPS lottery system, and limit who can apply to our school.”

So, what happens is some charters are in a Unified Enrollment system and some aren’t? Chaos. A chaos different than the current chaos, but chaos, nonetheless. For me, this could easily be more confusing for parents than the current system, where at least I know that if I want to apply for a charter school for my child, I must apply directly to that school. The only way that Unified Enrollment is truly “Unified” is if all charters decide to play, and this is not likely, at all.

Bad foundation, bad building

Home-based AssignmentBut let’s just suppose that by some near miracle, all charters decided to join the Unified Enrollment scheme. Then there would truly be one application for charters and public schools, but that system would be built on the foundation of the current Home-Based system. As part of getting this controversial system adopted, both the  BPS and Mayor Menino’s Education Advisory Committee assured the community that the new system would be carefully evaluated by some independent oversight group. This has never happened.

In the absence of any apparent assessment of how the Home-Based System is working, the parent group, QUEST, requested data on assignment results. That was 18 months ago, and no data has been forthcoming. Maybe the BPS knows very well that the new system is not working as advertised, so they prefer not to share the evidence. But no matter, it is unacceptable to talk about building a complex new system on top of a recently-implemented Home-Based plan that has never been evaluated. Let’s look at how the Home-Based system is working, and fix it, if necessary, before we build something on top of it.

Mixing apples and oranges…without telling anyone

But let’s say all charters are going to participate in the Unified Enrollment System AND the current system is working fine and makes just a fine foundation for the inclusion of charters. Even if those two unlikely things were true, there would still be many questions about Unified Enrollment. Many such questions center on the dangers of mixing very different kinds of schools in a choice “basket,” without really informing parents about those choices.

For example, a family from Hyde Park applying for the BPS would very likely have several charter schools in their “basket” of school choices. Those charters may include some of the Level One schools in their basket (schools with the highest test grades, at this point). The BPS currently does quite a poor job of communicating to parents the many differences between district schools. Parents who have the time and resources to tour multiple schools to find out the facts for themselves have a great advantage over the majority of parents who just can’t do that.

mixing fruitWill the BPS adequately communicate to our imaginary family that one of the charter schools has high test scores, but also has an incredibly strict discipline policy and suspension rates–especially for boys of color–that are off the charts? Will that family know that another Level One charter in its choice basket is poorly equipped to serve English Language Learners and, therefore, has a very small percentage of ELL students? This is only one of the many unforeseen problems that will arise as the BPS attempts to mix privately-managed charter schools with public schools in its assignment system.

A “Compact” solution?

One raising almost any question about Unified Enrollment is told that the originator of the proposal, The Boston School Compact, will take care of any bugs in the new system. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The Boston School Compact is an unaccountable talk shop for representatives of the BPS, Boston charter schools and parochial schools. The idea was developed and is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation allegedly to promote collaboration and information exchange among different types of schools operating in Boston. Our city is one of several “Compact cities” around the country.

The Boston Compact is a private space that shares very little information with the public about what it is doing (hence, the lack of accountability). It has facilitated some interesting collaborations, but has never taken on anything even remotely as complex as Unified Enrollment. Please do not tell me that the Compact will fix whatever problems arise in this new system.

So, for me, Unified Enrollment” is deceptive advertising. But please don’t take my word for it. Attend one of the community meetings that the City (to its credit) is holding about Unified Enrollment. This could all be in the bag very quickly.

4 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools, School Assignment

The Charter School Press is On

Gov. Baker testifies on behalf of his charter school expansion bill before the Committee on Education. [Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS] 10/13/15

[Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS] 10/13/15

The Parent Imperfect had every intention of testifying at yesterday’s State House hearing on several charter school bills before the Legislature, but life intervened and the testimony went unspoken. Since I spent the time writing this up, I have to do something with it, so it is attached below. I’ll send it to the Education Committee, as well.

I did finally get to the State House at about 4PM, yesterday. At that time, a number of public education advocates were still waiting to speak about the various bills. They had been in the Gardiner Auditorium since before 10AM, and had to sit through not only the shower of bilge from Governor and the Secretary of Education, but then had to endure hours of pro-charter testimony before they even got a chance to speak. One witness, Karran Harper Royal, had come all the way from New Orleans to warn the Legislature about what happened in her city. The rest were BPS parents and students who persevered all day to explain why they want the Legislature to Keep the Cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. Waiting for hours to speak to several members of the Committee in an almost-empty auditorium, they were yesterday’s heroes.

anti charterThose heroes face a tougher path to victory this time. Having suffered a humiliating defeat last year, Team Charter is back with a vengeance. Now they have a Governor and a Secretary of Education that are firmly on their side. Boston’s Mayor Walsh says the Governor has gone overboard with his request to allow up to 12 new charters per year in a quarter of the State’s school districts. But Walsh’s own proposal  is more than Team Charter could have hoped for a year ago. I expect that even Team Charter is nervous about the growth projections in the Governor’s proposal, so they’re probably quite happy with Marty’s cave-in. And if the heavy hitters aren’t enough, Team Charter is collecting signatures for a possible pro-charter ballot initiative and three big-time downtown lawyers have filed a very shaky lawsuit (more a political negotiation than a serious lawsuit) claiming that the Commonwealth is violating Students’ rights by limiting their ability to attend charter schools.

It looks like a full court press, leading to a slam dunk in the Legislature, but supporters of public ed will play it out, anyway. Full court presses have been known to back-fire.

About those bills…

 I want to thank the Co-Chairs of the Education Committee, all Committee members and everyone present here today for the opportunity to testify before you.

My name is [Earl the Pearl]. I live in Roslindale, with my wife and two children, one of whom just graduated from a BPS school and is attending college in New York State. The other is still a ninth grader in the BPS.  I am also a member of the parent group, QUEST, and am employed at the human rights center at Northeastern University School of Law, where we have a program to study the implementation (or not) of the right to education of all children. My remarks here are my own.

I’m here to testify in favor of S.326. I believe that a continued pause in the creation of charter schools is the only prudent path until we fully understand the impact of further charter school expansion. I’d like to thank Sen. Pacheco and his co-sponsors for putting forward that legislation in a less than friendly climate toward such thinking.

Just over a year ago, a debate took place in the MA Senate concerning a possible lifting of the existing cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. An important question surfaced in that debate, and I believe that the failure of proponents of lifting the cap to answer that question contributed to the defeat of the legislation. The question was, simply, “What is the end game?” That is, where is the continued expansion of these costly, publicly–funded, privately-governed alternatives to public schools taking us?

full court pressFriends, today the scales have fallen from our eyes and we have seen the endgame. What has been proposed by the Governor and Secretary Peyser is nothing less than the New Orleans Plan for Boston…without Hurricane Katrina. Team Charter has deployed a full court press and Governor Baker is on the point, with Sec’y Peyser on the wing.  You know the rest of the lineup. The endpoint is no mystery: The Governor and his allies wish to remove any meaningful restriction on charter school expansion and provide all kinds of incentives to accelerate that expansion, just as was done by Louisiana legislators in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We apparently want to do it here, without the storm as cover.

They say that they want the market to decide how many charter schools exist, but if they really believe they are talking about a market, I suggest that they sit in on an Econ class at one of our public high schools in Boston. I am not someone who believes the market should decide how we educate our children, but even high school economics demonstrates that charters are not operating in anything like a free market. The Commonwealth is paying the tuition for every charter student. Take away that enormous subsidy and charter schools will disappear quicker than the crowds on Yawkey Way when baseball season is over.

Far from a market, this is the plunder of a public resource for private use and, in some cases, private profit. Members of the Education Committee, if anything like the Governor’s proposals go forward, Boston, alone, will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in public education funds over the first few years. Our cherished Chapter 70 appropriation will quickly become exclusively a charter tuition fund. And don’t forget, committee members, that another law commits the Legislature to reimburse public school districts for a portion of those losses. The pressure on you to live up to this promise will increase as the Commonwealth implements open season on charter expansion. This reimbursement won’t be enough to compensate the losses to public schools, but it will become an increasingly large hot potato for all of you to deal with at budget time.

Yes, I know parents just like me who swear by charter schools. Some of those people are in the audience today. They had negative experiences in the BPS and believe that the schools “saved” their child, so they want more people to have that opportunity. I am happy that you have found what you see as a positive option for your child, and no one is talking about taking that option away from you. But I truly believe that expansion of that option at the expense of our public schools is not good for the much larger group of people, myself included, who rely on the BPS to educate our children. Your experience makes me want to work harder to fix the obvious problems with the BPS, but it does not make me a supporter of charter expansion in the Commonwealth.

I ask all members of the Committee to support S. 326, a bill to support the right of every child in the Commonwealth to equal access to quality education. Even if the philosophical arguments don’t persuade you, fiscal prudence should make you wonder about any further expansion of charter schools in the Commonwealth at this time.

8 Comments

Filed under Charter Schools

Dearborn…still

Dearborn SchoolLast summer, the Parent Imperfect did a lot of blustering about the community slam around Roxbury’s Dearborn School, but hasn’t had a lot to say about it lately. Incredibly, the school turnaround project that was on the fast track during July’s hottest days, was still there just last night. In one more time-pressured meeting, the “stakeholders group” met to interview the two finalists to become the “external operator” in the turnaround plan.

Back in August, in this very space, I wrote an open letter to Interim Superintendent John McDonough suggesting that he drop the district’s puzzling proposal to hand the $70 million project for a STEM academy in Roxbury over to a charter operator who had almost no experience running a school and ZERO experience with STEM. We suggested that it would be better to enlist some of the people opposing that scheme–including Dearborn staff, parents and students–to develop a community-supported proposal that could convince the Commonwealth’s education commissioner to back off and give that proposal a chance.

CommishDo you wonder about the PI’s influence (Ha! ha!)? Exactly three days later, Mayor Marty Walsh announced that the City was going to withdraw the charter proposal, and the BPS subsequently came forward with a shell of an alternative plan. The kicker (and maybe the poison pill) in the plan was the BPS’s insistence that the plan needed to feature an “external operator” that would be acceptable to the City, the community and, most importantly, Commissioner Chester. The Commissioner was threatening to put the Dearborn into state receivership because of continuing low test scores. From Day One, many in the community were skeptical about this “external operator” idea, but a credible community stakeholder group came together and the process ground forward, always up against some deadline imposed by the State.

One of the interesting moments in last night’s meeting came when a Dearborn parent reported that he had still not seen the scores for which the Commissioner is threatening to take over the school. Those scores allegedly became “public” in September. Who the hell has those scores and why do parents at the Dearborn not have them?

The meeting, itself, was high theater. First of all, it wasn’t held at the “Dearborn” building. That building is locked up, tight as a drum, awaiting the wrecking ball. That’s a whole other story that must await another day. The Dearborn school community has been evicted to an upper floor in the building of Jeremiah Burke High School, in Grove Hall. The meeting took place in a small room that couldn’t begin to accommodate the interested community spectators. It was a very direct experience of the difficulties faced by the school. When I got there (late, of course), there were a dozen people in the hallway, trying to listen.

LazarusI knew who the “finalists” were, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. There, like Lazarus, making a proposal to the community stakeholders, was the very same guy who I recalled so well making the ill-fated charter school proposal to a packed house at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church on a steamy night in August. He’s a perfectly nice guy (a JP resident, if I’m not mistaken) and obviously committed to education, but what does it say about this process that his organization has ended up as a finalist? The lack of relevant experience of his organization, the Boston Plan for Excellence, was one of the problems that the community had with the original charter proposal.

After the BPE proposal got its hour, in came an operation called MassPrep. Interestingly, the MassPrep guy stood up before the crowd and spoke with animo, where the BPE rep preferred to remain slumped in a seat for his questioning. The body language and the energy was completely different. Interestingly, MassPrep has no experience in Massachusetts (Hah?). In fact, it felt very much like a start-up, dependent on the name recognition and charter school pedigree of its co-founder.

This co-founder is another very engaging and intelligent guy, who began his talk by explaining that he had started on a path to Wall Street, but discovered School Street along the way. He started as an educator at a public school in New York, but quickly turned to the charter school sector and made a name for himself as a leader of the Mastery Schools network in Philly. When questioned, he failed to note that the Mastery Schools are well-known charter schools, but then proceeded to spend an hour talking about the relevance of the charter approach (without calling it that) to the challenges of the Dearborn.  I don’t know when I’ve heard the charter vision proposed more clearly, without using the words, “charter school.” In a tactical error, the speaker gave too little space to the women who accompanied him, including the other co-founder, a former basketball coach and quite a compelling speaker who actually seemed to have some direct knowledge of STEM education.

The most interesting conversation came after the finalists left. Not everyone among the stakeholders seemed ready to rush to judgement, but the pressure to move forward was palpable. The presence of a representative of the Commissioner, strategically positioned at room’s edge cast a long shadow over the proceedings, even thought the gentleman remained silent ’til the very end. Again, high theater. It’s hard to blame the community stakeholders for their hesitation. They are going to be accountable for this decision in the community, long after anyone remembers that it was the State and the BPS that pushed them into a corner with these two finalists.

How would you feel as a community member asked to stamp this process? After all this time, the process has come down to two finalists: an organization that failed with an earlier proposal and whose relevant experience has been questioned by the community since the very beginning, and a charter operator from Philly who doesn’t know Grove Hall from windfall. Neither group distinguished itself with its knowledge of STEM, the educational content that will determine the success of the future Dearborn.

Sitting directly across from these finalists, on the stakeholder group, was Dearborn’s interim principal, Mr. Willingham. The assumption–made by the State and not questioned by the BPS–behind this whole dance is that he and his team can’t turn the Dearborn around, yet he has shown on several occasions that he knows way more about STEM education than either of the guys with ties making proposals last night. I wonder how this makes him and those working with him feel about their efforts every day to keep learning happening under the most difficult of conditions at the Dearborn.

Cat playing organCity Councillor Tito Jackson, who sat and listened for most of the time, did his best to put a positive spin on the whole show. After saluting the efforts of the Dearborn teachers, students and community, he reminded people that it was their activism that forced the City to back off the original charter proposal and get back on the path of keeping the Dearborn a community school. As always, Tito was right, but I bet I wasn’t the only one wondering, “Absolutely, but what have we won if all this work comes down to a choice for a school operator that is between two guys who don’t know any more about STEM than a cat knows about an organ? One was the purveyor of the original proposal that we beat back and the other is a charter guy from Philly who needs a GPS to get back to South Station?”

Maybe this is simply what we have come to,..if people want a STEM academy in Roxbury, this is what it is. Maybe, but people didn’t seem quite ready to accept that, just yet. Somehow, even as the weather gets colder, the temperature around the Dearborn is likely to be unseasonably warm…still.

2 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools