(even if he is from Salem, not Gloucester)
Question 2 is on the ballot this fall, and charter schools are a massively polarizing issue even among the left of progressives that tend to make up the Clam’s braintrust and much of our readership. Many progressives and liberals are on different sides of this issue. In short, Question 2 proposes to allow the creation of up to 12 new charter schools per year. Those schools would favor districts in the bottom 25% of statewide districts.
Advocates paint this as an issue of improving access to quality education for our most vulnerable students and families (a large proportion of whom favor charter school expansion). Opponents see this as taking away resources from our already struggling public schools and an attempt to privatize a public good.
In many senses, they are both right. Full disclosure though, after 9 years in our city’s public system my own son opted to attend Salem’s charter school for high school and we allowed that (a decision that spawned much Facebook abuse from some of Salem’s “characters”) and supported his decision. I’m a fan of our public schools, and I have done a lot to support them, but I’m no longer a public school parent.
My own opinion on this ballot question is that charter schools themselves are neither good nor bad per se. Gloucester had a very bad experience with their charter school, which was poorly run and wound up being closed down. Salem’s has been very positive with Salem Academy Charter – ranking in the top handful of schools statewide and well-managed.
In a perfect world, the presence of a charter school in a district can be used to spur innovation and growth in the public school district it lives in and gets students from. In practice, though, the district shuns the charter, and the charters take an elitist attitude over the rest of the district.
Dudes, you get your kids by lottery. They’re the same group the rest of the district gets. If you game the lottery, you ought to lose your charter. Period. I think some of this split has to do with outcomes, though. And that bugs me more than a little.
Education and knowledge are important in today’s world. But progressives tend to over-value secondary education. And they undervalue the use of actual work – the kind where regular people make and fix things. Charters are popular with many because they send a lot of kids to college. Well, college isn’t all that. If you have a career path that’s not served by college, then maybe it doesn’t make sense for you. Maybe the best answer is a trade education (something sadly neglected in today’s world), combined with an apprenticeship. Maybe it’s a general liberal arts college education. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a specialized college education combined with a postgraduate education in a specialty (law, engineering, architecture, medicine, whatever). And maybe I’m biased as a college dropout who went on to a career in corporate IT management before starting my own company 13 years ago.
But anyways. The important thing is for every kid to have the best outcome for that kid. Not just whatever the workforce need is, or whatever is perceived to create the Renaissance Person. So, ultimately I do support charter schools as a solid educational alternative that ideally should be part of the educational system.
So Question 2 should be a no-brainer, right?
At the same time that charter schools are (I believe) a good part of the system, there’s a growing movement among both “education first” liberals and “privatize everything” conservatives to turn more and more of our educational system over to charters – and there’s also a growing movement to turn charter schools into a for-profit industry. I really don’t like that. As I mentioned above, in Salem we had a positive charter experience where community members basically brought the Salem Academy Charter into existence. Gloucester tried to do the same, but never was able to get their school onto a solid footing and has been without ever since.
Since that time we set up an in-district charter for troubled students (New Liberty Innovation School, which transitioned this year away from being a charter and back into the system), and Bentley Academy (formerly the Bentley School – the school whose problems were what brought the Salem district into Level 4) was a political football – an incredibly divisive topic driven at least partly by the use of the aforementioned private charter companies to get the ball rolling.
Also of note is something that is both a fact and a misleading fact. Yes, money is taken away from a district when those students leave for a charter school. But it’s not like that money just vaporizes, “poof” into the sky. The Mass Taxpayers Foundation (a fairly centrist policy group) put out a study this past week saying that charters aren’t a drain on traditional public schools at all, and though I quibble over a few findings (mostly in the below paragraph, having to do with fixed costs), we are in a state where the “dollars follow the student” system is applied to ANY public-option school. Including School Choice districts (like Hamilton-Wenham, which has brought in large numbers of out of district kids), vocational schools like Essex Tech, and of course, charter schools.
That money is given to the charter school to educate the child. Basically, the same total pool of money educated the same total pool of kids. This said, there IS a cost to the public schools for this. We are not in a true competitive market with schools (not should we be). But public schools have to staff teachers, maintain and operate buildings, provide transportation, and manage all sorts of fixed costs that stay the same if the enrollment goes up or if it goes down a few percent. So if the Chapter 70 money from the state that goes into the school foundation budget equals $7500 per pupil (not an exact figure) and 300 students go to the city’s charter school, that equals $2,250,000 assessed from the city.
That $2.25m becomes the basis of the charter’s budget – it’s still going to educate your community’s children – in addition to any other grants or funding that school is able to obtain. But depending on things, your regular public school didn’t shed $2.25m in costs. Yes, they did have some costs come out. But not that much.
In their infinite wisdom, the Legislature came up with a funding formula to make up those costs to the district that loses to the charter. Which they don’t fund. Where the argument gets more traction in my view is in an overall comparison of school finances. And this is one of the fundamental flaws in charter school development nowadays and the whole “for profit” charter school industry. Public schools in many communities are struggling. There are a lot of reasons for this. Demographic shifts. Special education requirements and costs (this is one of the loopholes many charters use – they have more leeway to send children with extensive special education needs back to the public school system). Increasing costs of owning/managing school buildings. Often restrictive teacher union contracts. The failure of the state to keep up with costs in their foundation budgets.
One more common objection to charters is that they aren’t overseen by elected school committees. Well, not every community elects their school committee (most notably in Boston, but regional vocational schools also appoint their school committee members as well). More importantly, charters don’t operate in a vacuum. They all appoint a board of trustees who have that oversight role. If they fail to do it, the state can (and in a few cases, has) stepped in to take oversight or even close the school. Massachusetts is good at this.
But charters aren’t all sunshine and roses. There are threats to the model, and that is a good reason to not just run away willy-nilly and build charter schools everywhere. And this is where the money is. An entire industry has emerged to build charter schools that run like a business, not like a community. And the financial companies and foundations (like the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame) with ties to the for-profit charter businesses are putting plenty of money into the MA fight. On the No side for big bucks is the MA teacher’s union – many of the charter schools are non-union so that’s an obvious place to defend.
The entire battle is a cluster. There are people who would rather see Trump in the White House than see a single new charter school. In our state, we’re doing better than most when it comes to charter management and oversight. But there’s also long waiting lists for charter schools all around the state, especially in districts where the schools are lower-performing.
Personally, I’m voting NO on Question #2, because I like having more brakes on the charter school system. I think there’s room to expand. But not much, and not quickly. And I also think both sides have a long way to go before we can get to a happy medium and run charters the way they can make the biggest difference for the state as a whole.
But our priority has to be on improving our public schools. That’s where the bulk of the resources should be going, that’s where the bulk of the kids are (and should be) educated, and that’s where the rubber meets the road.