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POV: Massachusetts Should Vote No on More Charter Schools

A flawed reform, based on exaggerated claims

23

Massachusetts voters will decide on November 8 whether to increase the number of charter schools in the state, or not. Question 2 on the ballot proposes to expand the number of charter schools in underperforming school districts throughout the state. The genesis of charter schools in our nation is part of the wider school reform agenda that emerged from the denigration of government in general, and public schools in particular, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address and the publication of the National Commission on Excellence in Education report A Nation at Risk in 1983. In today’s political environment, it is important to fact-check before deciding whether to vote yes or no on this question.

Political leaders have denigrated traditional public schools for decades. When the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were released, Arne Duncan, then US Secretary of Education, declared that the results for the United States “are straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.” While Duncan and others focused on our “mean scores,” a more in-depth analysis presented a very different picture.

Of the American students who sat for PISA, 38 percent were from the two lowest socioeconomic categories. That is by far the largest percentage of low-income test-takers among all of our comparative nations. (The highest scorers, like Shanghai, Singapore, and Finland, had almost no low-income test-takers.) The United States has a higher percentage of low-income students in our public schools than any of the comparative nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In an important way, that is a good thing, because in many of the highest scoring nations, low-income students do not attend school.

But it is incontrovertible that students from low-income families and communities throughout the world score far lower than students from more advantaged families and communities on these tests. So it is not surprising that our average scores are far lower. American public schools with fewer than 10 percent low-income students score at the very top on PISA. And low-income US students score higher than all other low-income groups outside the United States on PISA. But nobody knows that. The actual news about American schools is way better than the misleading headlines.

Driven by the incomplete and deceptive interpretation of test scores like PISA, public schools have been subjected to oppressive, top-down, one-size-fits-all school reforms such as Common Core Standards. This has deprofessionalized teaching and demoralized teachers. The development of charter schools is a major response to the perception that our public schools are lousy.

It is easy for charter advocates to grab the moral high ground in this debate. Poor parents should have the kind of good school choices that more middle- and upper-class parents have. The freedom to innovate and share the results with all public schools is a great idea. Healthy competition is good for all schools. I have seen excellent and humane charters, full of hardworking, talented, and idealistic faculty and staff. However, I have also seen too many charters that raise serious concerns.

Too many charter schools are test-prep factories with very rigid and rote academic formats. Too many are characterized by harsh punitive cultures; “no excuses” practices misunderstand the developmental nature of children and the impact of poverty on children. Many charters exclude children—in formal and informal ways—who jeopardize the academic profile of the school. Charter school teachers and leaders do not send their own children to their schools; wealthy supporters of charters often send their children to private schools with cultures that are the opposite of the rigid charter cultures. And charters have a dismal record of retaining both teachers and leaders.

Perhaps the least known characteristic of charters is that our taxes are taken from our public schools and enrich private investors. Typically, charter schools operate as nonprofits. However, the buildings in which they operate are generally owned by private landlords who benefit financially from taxes that are transferred to the operation of charters.

David Brain, head of the large real estate investment firm Entertainment Properties Trust at the time, appeared on CNBC in 2012 to tell audiences just how lucrative charter school investment has become. In response to a question about the most profitable sector in real estate investment, he said, “Well, I think probably the charter school business.”

There are better ways to reinvigorate our public schools. We should develop additional low-income housing in all suburbs so that many more low-income children can attend integrated schools with proven cultures of success. We can develop additional magnet, pilot, and “schools within schools” in public school districts, which provide additional autonomy for teachers and leaders. We should renegotiate teacher tenure so that teachers are hired for three years of probationary service—exactly the way it is today—and then granted four-year contracts, similar to the way we hire and retain public school principals and superintendents. “School-based accountability” should hold whole schools, not individual teachers, responsible for the academic, social and emotional, and civic progress of students over time.

And let’s pay teachers who work in schools with a preponderance of children from low-income families significantly more, and create working conditions in those schools that provide the kinds of services and support that more advantaged children receive from their schools, families, and communities.

There are 81 charter schools in Massachusetts. They should continue and prove themselves over time, not only by annual test scores, but by retention of faculty and leaders and the success of their graduates. If charters demonstrate their value, then perhaps we can revisit Question 2.

Robert Weintraub (SED’86), a School of Education research professor of educational leadership and policy studies, can be reached at rjtraub@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

23 Comments

23 Comments on POV: Massachusetts Should Vote No on More Charter Schools

  • Megan on 10.17.2016 at 7:14 am

    Well said!

  • Paul on 10.17.2016 at 8:06 am

    How likely is it that the other reforms proposed by Prof. Weintraub would be enacted, especially “renegotiate teacher tenure” and “additional low-income housing in all suburbs”? Those are absolutely to be desired, but are near impossible to get done. Question 2 may be the only way that voters have of moving the needle on public schools at this point.

    • RS on 10.17.2016 at 9:08 am

      Agree!! Voting no doesn’t mean the other reforms will happen.

    • Jesse W. on 10.19.2016 at 1:27 pm

      Paul – I also agree. While there are many great suggested alternatives, none of those are on this ballot, so they are actually not relevant to MA voters.

      I would have appreciated a more specific argument/series of arguments against raising the charter school cap. As presented, all the arguments against seem to reference national/generalized data. But we are MA voters and are voting only on what is happening in this state. Writing things like “too many charter schools are test-prep factories with very rigid and rote academic formats” tells me nothing about the charter schools in MA. Which charter schools in MA are like that? How many? What percentage? Is this higher than the district public schools? I suspect not.

      This pattern repeats for all the arguments made against raising the cap. There is NO MA-specific data. How many charter schools are paying rent to private landlords IN MASSACHUSETTS? How much are they paying? What can we extrapolate from that?

      The first time anything is mentioned about MA charter schools is the last paragraph, in which the reader learns that there are currently 81 of them.

  • Pedro on 10.17.2016 at 8:16 am

    “Perhaps the least known characteristic of charters is that our taxes are taken from our public schools and enrich private investors.”

    Bingo.

  • Ellen Young on 10.17.2016 at 8:27 am

    Or, let us look at successful PUBLIC charter schools who successfully educate students from many demographics? Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma City is a good example. Top ranked nationally, it makes due with far less money than regular public schools in OK (already at the bottom of the charts in public school spending) it takes all comers (selection is by lottery only and they do not select by academics or testing) and succeeds due to efforts by the teachers, students, and parents. Students and teachers are treated with respect and parents are actually valued. Charter schools are not the problem – it may be the way you choose to operate them that is the problem. Just as with “regular” public schools.

    • RS on 10.18.2016 at 11:02 pm

      Agree! Charters work!

  • RS on 10.17.2016 at 9:06 am

    American schools are failing our children. I don’t believe that charter schools are the only option for Education Reform, but they are a big player.

    The mission of most charter schools is to not only educate the children they serve, but to also inspire change in other schools. There are obviously limits on funding for education, but charter schools actually get less funding for pupil. They are CHEAPER than public schools, but appear to better funded because they do not have the contractual obligations that public schools have. They often have the option to purchase items for their schools at a lower cost. I agree, we need to fix the public schools that exist, but they aren’t working. It’s not always a matter of resources or the fact that working with children from low-income families is hard. We have teachers who are terrible and locked into their position because they have tenure and it is costly to release them. Obviously, this is not always the case, but a huge problem. There is no financial benefit to releasing these teachers, only a benefit to the children. The Department of Education chooses saving money over learning.

    I worked at a charter school in New York City for 3 years. It’s a stressful environment and yes there is a low retention rate, but numbers are skewed. Most teachers are contract at will, and yes some cannot endure the stressful environment (teaching is difficult!) and choose to leave, but people are also promoted quickly. While they stay within the school or school network, their movement within the organization is counted as “turnover.” I was promoted three times in 3 years, so it would have appeared as though 3 people left, but that’s just not true.

    If you are concerned with “test prep” practices, maybe limits on “test prep” should be proposed. Test prep is important for children from low-income families. Their future success is dependent on these scores to do well eventually on the SAT and go to college. They cannot depend on their parents or other resources that affluent families have to play the college-admission game or to have something to resort to if college is not an option. Yes, charter schools can be strict, children are held accountable from the way they sit to the way they complete work. Step into classroom in a charter school and I think you will find a warm, loving environment that is full of learning and excitement. Children start to talk about where they want to go to college starting in Kindergarten! It’s amazing. Media misrepresents charter schools. Much of the videos and articles are based on isolated incidents. One needs to experience a charter school to really know it.

    You have a lot of great ideas as to what to do with the “money” that public schools would receive by stopping charter school growth, but it’s not going to happen by voting no on this proposition. Voting no doesn’t promise to increase the salary of teachers working in low-income schools and it doesn’t increase resources within school. If those programs exist now, you can be sure that our government believes our schools can exist without them. They are looking to cut wherever they can. Voting no isn’t going to create more government housing, so schools become more integrated. Voting no, doesn’t solve the problems you suggest, it just continues to put children who live in poverty at a disadvantage.

    If you vote no, you are continuing the cycle of poverty.

    • Doug on 10.17.2016 at 2:19 pm

      Well said. A much more thoughtful and realistic assessment of the issue than original article.

  • John Lerner on 10.17.2016 at 12:38 pm

    The Boston school committee estimated that if question 2 passes, three new Charter Schools will open per year in Boston. Our schools are funded by enrollment, per student spending. If my daughter’s 20 classroom BPS school were to lose three students per class room, the school and district would lose approximately 1 million dollars in funding. This scenario can be repeated for all of the 126 Boston Public Schools. I fail to see how this is going to help educate the children of Boston, 30% of whom are English language learners, 7% that are homeless.

  • Kerri Dooley on 10.17.2016 at 12:40 pm

    I disagree that we should vote no on more charter schools. I think there shouldn’t be anymore city run charter schools because they are they same teachers and staff from failing public schools that were made in to city run charter schools and these are the charter schools that give all charter schools a bad name. private run charter schools take nothing away from public schools. Most private charter schools offer a higher level of education and raise their own funds. voting yes on charter schools gives parents more choices for their children’s education. Limiting parents choices on grammar school and high school would be like saying you shouldn’t have the choice of which college you attend.

  • Bernard Chasan on 10.17.2016 at 5:55 pm

    additional facts omitted by the professor, Public schools get compensated when
    Charter schools are sited in their district. Finally, the new charter schools would be opened in a small number of districts around Springfild Ma.
    And a final inconvenient fact, good African American students who were rejected by Boston Latin went instead to the Academy of the Pacific rim in in Roslindale.
    .

    • Todd on 10.23.2016 at 8:50 am

      I’m from the Springfield area. Your comment is just another example of how eastern MA thinks of us over here on the other side of the state.

  • Ginny Briggs on 10.17.2016 at 9:22 pm

    I would like to offer some more personal thoughts about my views on charter schools, based on my own experience. My daughter attends a Massachusetts charter school, and has a physical disability as well as some learning disabilities. The charter school has been exceptional in helping her succeed. The special education department has undergone some changes in the last couple of years, that have made things difficult at times, but, overall, the instruction has been amazing since she entered the 6th grade there 5 years ago. When she was in the local middle school before this, she was in a special ed. math class that had her performing nothing but simple addition. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t trying to do more with those students. Once she entered the charter school, she was provided with one-on-one instruction daily, and soon she was one chapter behind the rest of her grade in algebra and geometry. They have also coordinated her physical therapy services just as well as the regular school and have been very responsive about questions and concerns. She has thrived in this environment and I am grateful for this wonderful community of educators.

    As I understand it, there is a sizable waiting list to get into this school now. My daughter was admitted because her older brother entered two years before that (by lottery), and siblings receive priority. They do ask you to buy school supplies and uniforms. Though we are not wealthy, we have managed, but I have wondered about the lower income families when these expenses have come up. However, the school has found ways to help by doing things like holding a used uniform sale regularly and running several fundraisers every year. These types of programs have helped many of us. The school has a diverse group of students, and I believe has served our community well.

  • H on 10.17.2016 at 11:26 pm

    Very well said.

  • BUMom on 10.18.2016 at 12:15 am

    Most Charters are not successful. Realistically they are as successful as there public counterparts. However, if traditional public school would enforce the same policies their ratings would go up as well. For example- all students must be involved in a national academic club- like FFA, HOSA, FBLA, etc. -all student must take the PSAT, SAT, all AP students must take the exam, 4 years of Math, 4 years of science, 4 years of language, all take SAT prep class, all kids apply to 4 colleges or more, career ready and college ready computer software must be utilized, larger classes, parents must volunteer, don’t tell parents anything and micromanage every aspect of the student. All to generate DATA- data that can be manipulated to force rankings to go up.

    • RS on 10.18.2016 at 10:56 pm

      Where did you find evidence to prove “‘most charter schools are not successful?” Research shows they ARE more successful than public schools.

  • PrettyKItty2000 on 10.18.2016 at 7:20 pm

    when you have a student that doesn’t thrive in a public school setting due to having a learning disability a well established charter school is the best way to go. Most parents don’t understand what it’s like to have a child in school with a learning/medical/physical disability and these are the kids that get lost in the cracks. These are the patents that the Public Schools try to beat down emotionally, make it so incredibility difficult on the student that is different and it’s because the school district doesn’t want to spend the extra $$$ to have these student learn in the least restricted school environment. These kids have rights too!!! I’ve had the pleasure of having one of my kids thrive in our town Public Schools and I’ve also had my other child thrive in a Charter School setting. Charter Schools are just as important as are the public school. My child should not have been forgotten by the Public School where we have lived and still lived. My child has the same rights as every other Public School student. My child should not have been penalized from the Public Schools nor should any other student that has learning/medical/physical disability. I’m not voting no on Question 2.

  • Jack Covey on 10.19.2016 at 3:22 am

    During the next month leading up to Tuesday, November 8, as you see or listen to the slick and expensive Madison Avenue-level TV/radio commercials promoting “YES” on Question 2 promulgating such lies as …

    “Question 2 will add more money to public schools (LIE: it won’t. In fact it will do just the opposite.

    or

    “Question 2 won’t take money away from existing public schools (LIE: it will… a lot of money, in fact.)

    … or when view the slick mailers you find in your mailbox, or when listen to robo-calls, think about this following post about EXACTLY WHO is paying for those ads:

    The latest is that over $21.7 million of out-of-state money from the most ruthless capitalists who have ever walked the Earth — Eli Broad, the Walton family of Walmart, Wall Street hedge fund managers, etc. — is pouring into Massachusetts to pass Question 2.

    Read this well-researched article here for that $21.7 million figure:

    https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/ma-question-2-funding-hits-21-7-million/

    These profit-minded plutocrats who are pouring in this money obviously …

    — do not live in Massachusetts,

    — have no children, grandchildren, or other relatives that attend public

    schools in Massachusetts

    — have never given a sh#% about the education of middle or lower income until recently, when they realized they could make a buck off privatizing Massachusetts schools via the expansion of privately-run charter schools,.

    They want to these corporate charter schools to replace truly public schools — the ones that, for generations, have been accountable and transparent to the public via democratically elected school boards, and which are mandated to educate ALL of the public… including those hardest or most difficult to educate … special ed., English Language Learners, homeless kids, foster care kids, kids with difficult behavior arising from distressed home lives.

    Are proponents of Question 2 seriously making the argument that out-of-state billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund managers are pumping in all this money because those folks care so much about the education of kids in Massachusetts?

    You really think they are NOT seeking a big money return on these ($21.7 million campaign donations?

    Does that pass the smell test?

    Can you provide an example of JUST ONE TIME in the past where they poured in this kind of cash to something … no strings attached, and with no expectations of return?

    If, as Q 2 supporters like Marty Walz claim, the most ruthless capitalists that have ever walked the Earth are now kicking in this kind of cash to pass Question 2 merely because they care about children’s education —

    … and if they are not about their profiting through the privatization of public schools brought about by the expansion of privately-run charter schools,

    … then I’m sure one of you Q 2 supporters could google and find a past example where they have done something similar .. .again out of generosity… with no expectation of an eventual monetary return…

    Something like …

    “Well, back in 2000-something, or 1900-something, these same folks donated $20 million to the (INSERT CHARITABLE CAUSE HERE). Here’s the link that proves this.”

    No, I didn’t think so. When this was brought up in a debate, Mary Walz refused to address it, saying, “We need to talk about the kids, not the adults.” Well, keeping money-motivated scum from raping and pillaging Massachusetts public schools IS CARING ABOUT THE KIDS, Marty! (By the way, those are many of the same folks who raped and pillaged the housing/mortgage industry a decade ago … go watch the film THE BIG SHORT to get up to speed on that … they’ve just moved on to new place to plunder.)

    So the real question is:

    To whom do the schools of Massachusetts belong? The citizens and parents who pay the taxes there?

    Or a bunch of money-motivated out-of-state billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund managers who are trying to buy them via Question 2, and the expansion of privately-managed charter schools which they control, or also profit from their on-line and digital learning products that will be sold to these charter school chains?

    If you believe the former, THEN FOR GOD’S SAKE, VOTE “NO” ON QUESTION 2.

    Send them a message: Massachusetts schools are NOT FOR SALE!!!

    Oh and go watch the John Oliver charter school video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_htSPGAY7I

    Oh and listen to this dissection of a “YES on 2” radio ad:

    http://wrsi.com/monte/dissecting-the-great-schools-massachusetts-ad-on-question-2/

    • Patrick on 10.20.2016 at 12:30 pm

      Well this Marty Walz guy sounds like a pretty bad dude. Probably on the same level as Boston mayor Marty Walsh, even. Of course, they can’t be the same person, because Walsh is against question 2.

      But you’re completely right. I don’t listen to people who have no idea what’s going on with Boston schools.

  • Paul on 10.19.2016 at 7:46 am

    Boston mayor Martin Walsh makes a persuasive case for “no” in today’s Boston Globe Op Ed page. Walsh supports charter schools, but believes Question 2 is the wrong way to support charters as well as traditional schools. Clearly some things need to change – many students, especially poor students, are not being served well. Maybe we need a better compromise than what Question 2 proposes.

  • Hening on 10.30.2016 at 6:24 pm

    Total nonsense. Public schools have become a huge investment with a very low return. As long as unions run the public school system, there will always be an alternative needed. There is nothing wrong with competition, and there is nothing wrong with parents wanting a better education for their children.

  • Fred on 12.12.2016 at 8:20 am

    It’s very depressing to see all of the comments from people who continue to believe the lie that our public schools are failing. Did you not read the article? I’ll summarize the info most are choosing to ignore:

    1. Children who live in poverty do not perform nearly as well in school, for a variety of obvious reasons, as children who do not live in poverty.

    2. America has by far the highest percentage of children living in poverty of any of the countries with higher PISA scores than us.

    3. When you only look at U. S. school districts with poverty levels similar to those of the countries with higher test scores we jump to #1 by a wide margin.

    4. Our poor students outperform poor students anywhere on earth.

    So you see, our public schools are, in fact, the best in the world by a wide margin. So the question is: why are so many people so determined to dismantle our public schools? Answer: money.

    Our public education system is in the process of being dismantled so a relative handful of greedy individuals can make a few bucks and millions of ignorant Americans are actively supporting this. Very, very depressing.

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