Tag Archives: School Choice

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.

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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.

 

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Exam School Choice, #14: But BLA was my first choice!

The LetterOn Friday, the Parent Imperfect received a number of messages from people who had received their exam school assignment letters from the Boston Public Schools. Their children had taken a private school admissions test that does not correspond to the BPS curriculum, and based on those test results and their grades in Grades 5 & 6, they were offered admission to one of the city’s exam schools.

Being who I am, I tend to hear from people who chose the nation’s oldest public school for their sixth grader, and got their first choice. Their doubts about this choice are returning and they are wondering if they can still opt for their child to go to one of the other exam schools. They want me to say that BLS will be fine for their child…as if I know.

This year, one of the most common questions came from people (four…this is not a huge sample size) who had chosen BLA as their first choice, but had actually received their second choice…Boston Latin School. One wanted to know if I thought that the BPS had just put her child into BLS because of her high score, regardless of their first choice, and the other three asked what I thought they should do, given that they had already decided that they didn’t want their child (boys, in each of these cases) to go to the nation’s oldest.

Since BLA accepts fewer students for seventh grade  (about 150 fewer, I think), it is not hard to figure out how this happens. Susie’s test scores and grades mean that she is ranked #340 for BLA, but that school is only accepting 332 children this year (these are made-up numbers). Susie, unfortunately, doesn’t get into BLA. The computer then goes to Susie’s second choice, BLS. It turns out that, at that point in the process, BLS has only filled 469 of the 534 spots it has for this year, so Susie becomes the 470th student assigned to BLS. She is admitted to BLS (her second choice) when some students ranked lower than Susie, who made BLS their first choice, won’t get it. Susie’s parents then have a decision to make.

Latin AcademyI’m sure that this has always happened, but I’m going to go out on a limb (with no data other than my own anecdotes) and say that more students with relatively high test scores and grades are making BLA or the O’Bryant their first choice each year. Gradually, this idea that BLS is “the only high school worth going to in the city” is going away. This is a very good change. There are still people who start choosing among private schools if their child doesn’t get into BLS, but I sense that the number of these folks is dwindling. I believe that more of the higher scoring students (not to be confused with “better” students) are still making BLS their first choice, and, eventually, attending that school, but the numbers are changing. “Sumus primi” remains the BLS motto, but that doesn’t mean what it once did.

If this shift is, indeed, taking place, it means something different for each school. For BLS, it would mean more academic diversity in the school (not necessarily more of any other sort of diversity). There may actually be more students at the school who have a hard time adapting to the academic expectations and social pressures of the school. The systems that exist at the school to support these students (peer tutoring, Saturday Success School, extra help from teachers, etc.) will be under increasing stress to meet increasing demand.

So what should Susie’s parents do? They went through this painstaking process of looking at the schools and deciding that BLA, as a more diverse school with a noticeably more supportive culture for students not in the top 25% of their class, was best for Susie. Now, her assignment for 7th grade is the nation’s oldest.

I don’t know what Susie’s parents should do, but there are a few things that I do that may affect such a decision:

1. Each of the three exam schools has much to recommend it. Parents have carefully ranked their preferences among the schools, based on their sense of the kind of environment that will work best for their child. That said, a lot of students who don’t get their first choice do quite well in the school to which they are assigned. I always suggest that people look closely at the school where their child has been placed, before assuming that a non-BPS alternative is the only option.

2. How one places in the exam school derby is not predictive of how they will do in any particular school environment. Our two children were not all that different in terms of test scores or elementary school grades, but their experiences at BLS have been totally different. The organizational skills, personality and learning style of the child seem to be much more predictive of success at BLS than where one places on the exam sorting list. Gender also matters, as I continue to be told that boys are the most challenged demographic group at the school, in terms of academics. This means, for example, that Latinos as a group (a quite small group) fare better at the school than do boys (a quite large group).

Wolfpack3. BLS changes a bit each year, but remains a place that works better for some types of students than others. Just last night, a mother wrote into the BLS Village list-serv to address the question of too much homework. Her son, a ninth grader gets fine grades at the school, while spending 1-2 hours on homework each night. She doesn’t say this, but he is apparently quite happy at the school. Others talk about children who are spending 4-6 hours per day on homework and routinely staying up past 11PM to complete their assignments. This puts an incredible strain on the child (and the family) at a time when the transition to adolescence is putting its own strains on them. We have lived both stories in our own household, and would not wish the strain and conflict on anyone. There have been important changes during the time we have been at BLS in how the school deals with students who struggle with the academic transition. I would not, however, begin to say that the school does everything possible to make it possible for every student to be successful. For example, after a lot of work by a community-wide task force, BLS adopted a “homework policy” mandating that students be assigned roughly 30 minutes of homework in each subject, each evening. There should be no homework over school vacations. Perhaps responding to curricular pressures, teachers routinely violate this policy, and there seems to be no way to hold them accountable to this or any other policy–regular information on student progress, for example–that might help struggling students.

4. Diversity matters and some schools better reflect the diversity of the BPS than others. We believe that economically and socially diverse schools better prepare students, including ours, to be good citizens in the very divided society that they are likely to live in. Of all BPS high schools, the O’Bryant more closely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the BPS student body than any other school. BLA is less diverse, in this sense, but is still among the more diverse schools in an increasingly segregated set of high schools. BLS is simply off the charts in this regard. Because the student body of the school is so heavily Caucasian and Asian (two groups that, together, make up much less than 25% of the system’s students) BLS is, by quite a bit, the least diverse of the schools in the system. The BPS no longer collects good information about the socioeconomic circumstances of its students, but, based on older information, there is little doubt that BLS is an outlier in this regard, as well. Our children certainly have African-American and Latino friends at BLS, as well as friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but their social lives immediately became dramatically less diverse spaces upon entering the BLS school environment. They are certainly not “bad’ kids as a result, but they are becoming different people. We knew that this would likely happen when we chose BLS for our children, so we must have decided that other factors were more important.  What we thought less about was the fact that this change in the social lives of our children would also impact the social life of the entire family.

According to the BPS, over half of the students taking the ISEE exam get into their first choice school. That means that a lot of those families are still facing difficult choices about high school for their child. And then there are all of the students who didn’t opt to take the ISEE, in the first place. With their families, they face an even more daunting set of choices. We wish that everyone in the system was in the position of choosing among quality options, but that is certainly not the case.

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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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