Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Why I Am Voting No on 2

This is not a post about the merits of charter schools. Just like their public school peers, some charter schools provide an excellent education, while others are failing their students. The reality is that charter school students perform equal or worse on standardized tests than their peers in the public schools. In Boston, while charter school students perform better on state standardized tests, their public school peers are more likely to graduate college. Overall, Massachusetts has the nation’s best public education system, which is something we should be very proud of, but also something we must carefully protect.

Instead, this post is focused specifically on the upcoming Ballot Question 2 in Massachusetts. If this question passes, it would remove the current statewide cap on charter schools and allow up to 12 new Massachusetts charter schools every year. If it does not pass, the state legislature will continue to decide how many new charter schools can open in the future. Considering all of the negative consequences of the ballot question at hand, I am using this post to discuss the five reasons why I will be voting NO on Question 2 during this November’s election.

1. This ballot question will decrease funding for traditional public schools. Despite the “Yes on 1” campaign’s claims in television commercials that voting yes will result in “more funding for public education,” there is no evidence that this is true, especially since communities continue to receive less state educational aid. Even the ballot question’s most vocal supporter, Governor Charlie Baker has stated that Questions 2 will not change the current school funding formula. Currently, more than $450 million yearly is being drawn from public school districts. With an increase of 12 charter schools per year (which according to this ballot question can happen indefinitely), it could cost local school districts more than $1 billion annually within 10 years (which will not only present serious problems for urban communities' municipal budgets, but also would hurt their credit ratings).

While charter schools are approved by the state, their funding comes largely from charter school tuition reimbursements from public school districts (see here, for more on charter school funding). Boston had a $158 million charter school tuition assessment, which was 5% of the entire city budget. If this question passes, it could lead to almost all of Boston’s state education aid being diverted to charter schools. Moreover, there are other costs that local districts incur related to charter schools, including transportation. Last year, Boston spent $12 million on charter school busing, while the district has been dramatically cutting its own students’ transportation (middle school students now use public transportation instead of buses and the school assignment policy was changed so more students would attend schools closer to their homes. Boston charter schools also get first pick of school start times).

2. This ballot question will contribute to growing educational inequity in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts (and nationwide), there is strong evidence that charter schools do not serve all students. They typically have higher student attrition rates (which some attribute to charter schools “pushing” or consulting out students) than public school districts. They serve smaller numbers of English language learners and special needs students. Their teachers are not required to be licensed. Their school policies are more likely to promote “no excuses” discipline procedures that can be harmful to children (to understand what this looks like, consider this in-district charter school in Boston or these two charter schools in New York). They are also contributing to an alarming trend of racial resegregation in schools nationwide. It makes sense to correct these inequities before any major expansion of charter schools occurs in Massachusetts.

3. This is about privatizing public education. This ballot question is being pushed by well-funded special interest groups (who do not have to reveal their donors and many are from outside Massachusetts with no previous advocacy work for public education), who would like to see more private entities running public schools. Many of these special interest groups are supported by wealthy families (who do not typically have children in the public schools) and investors (who profit from investments in charter school companies and other attempts to privatize public education). If you believe that public education is essential for democracy, then this should raise serious concerns.

4. This ballot question does not correct problems with charter school governance. While a marketing campaign pushed the use of “public charter schools” among charter schools in 2014, in court, charter schools often argue they are “private” when it comes to open-records, open meeting, and labor laws. The best label for charter schools is probably quasi-public schools, since they receive public funding and are approved and regulated by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (although there is little oversight by the state and charter schools are rarely closed), but are privately managed. Unlike public schools in Massachusetts, which have democratically elected school committees that govern and set policy (except Boston, which is appointed by the mayor, who is democratically elected), charter schools have private boards (usually composed of business and political leaders, and rarely parents or students). Many charter schools are often run by educational companies and chains, which have much higher management costs (and sometimes by EMOs that are for-profit). Moreover, local school boards have no authority (and usually little communication) with the charter schools in their cities or towns.

5. This ballot question moves the role of charter schools from “labs for educational innovation” into “replacement for traditional public schools.” The cap on charter schools was lifted in the early 2000s from the original legislation allowing 25 to 120 (however, the state has only approved 81 so far, so there is still room for 39 more under the current law) and charter schools serve about 4% of the state’s students (Boston has 27 charter schools educating 14% of its student population). This legislation would result in as many as 60 new charter schools statewide in just 5 years and possibly 120 in 10 years. If charter schools are labs of innovation, then they should remain a relatively small number of the publicly supported schools. If there are great ideas being developed in charter schools, then bring those over to the public schools, not replace them (however, the state has not developed adequate practices around the sharing of practices between public schools and charter schools, which seems to be a major problem if charter schools are actually labs for educational innovation). This ballot question may be the tipping point that could destabilize public school districts which raises concerns about the overall utility of charter schools.

I am writing this post, not because I have an ideological opposition to charter schools, but because I care deeply about public education. As a teacher educator, I work with many future and current teachers, who will work in public schools, charter schools, and private schools. As a former teacher, who worked in public and private schools (and my wife is a public school teacher who previously worked in a charter school), I know that different students flourish in different school contexts. I am also a parent who lives in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with a child attending our neighborhood public school. I am very happy with my child's school, but I can understand why some of our friends and other parents in our community choose to send their children to charter or private schools. I deeply respect parents’ rights to choose the educational setting that is best for their children. Furthermore, there is much to like about the original idea of charter schools conceived by Ray Budde at UMass Amherst (my alma mater) and Albert Shanker (the former head of the American Federation of Teachers), who envisioned charter schools as teacher-led educational laboratories to experiment with new types of pedagogy and curriculum. The idea of improving teaching and learning, and teacher empowerment, is at the heart of my work.

The movements to profit from and privatize public education have clouded the original vision of charter schools. This may be the reason why the National NAACP, New England NAACP, Black Lives Matter Movement, the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association, Massachusetts Municipal Association, the National Democratic Party (who has generally supported charter school expansion), the Massachusetts Democratic Party, and numerous local officials across Massachusetts, including the Boston City Council and the mayor of Boston (who is a vocal supporter of charter schools), have changed their stances on charter school expansion. Even Comedian John Oliver recently made this humorous commentary on "This Week Tonight" and, despite early voter support for Question 2, there appears to be lessening of support recently for changing the current charter school law.

If this ballot question passes, it would have a devastating impact on our local public school districts. It would continue to weaken traditional public schools, which serve 96% of the state’s students. This ballot question will possibly lead to a two-tiered education system in Massachusetts, with the negative impacts exacerbated in our urban communities. Conversely, if this ballot question fails to pass, charter schools will continue to be an option for Massachusetts’ families and there will be undoubtedly more charter school seats in the coming years (since the state has still not reached its legislative maximum, with the exception of a few districts).

Voting "no" on Question 2 allows for more time to be thoughtful in our approach to charter school expansion within our public school system.