The Massachusetts ballot initiative to raise the cap on public charter school growth will provide families living in low-income, urban areas—who are often stuck in failing schools—the choice they want and deserve to improve the educational options and life trajectories of their children.
The fight to #LiftTheCap is about empowering families in Dorchester, not taking resources from Dover. It’s about Mattapan, not about Marlborough. People who have wealth have the choice to move to communities with good district schools or opt into parochial or private schools. These communities are not impacted by this ballot question. However, families in low-income, urban communities, often families of color, do not have these options—and they passionately want good schools for their children just as much as any of us.
In Massachusetts, public charter schools are providing exceptional educational outcomes for underserved communities. Yet tens of thousands of students in low-income, urban communities are on waitlists for charters, and therefore trapped in bad school systems because of a state-legislated cap on charter growth.
Are public charter schools perfect? No. But they significantly outperform district schools in serving low-income students of color in urban settings, including special education students, English language-learners, and students who are significantly below grade-level. A Brookings report discusses this in detail, building on the rigorous research of Harvard, MIT and Stanford on Massachusetts charters.
The success of charters is not just in test scores (which are important), but also in developing character, socio-emotional supports, and preparing students successfully for college, careers, and a choice-filled life.
Praising the success of public charters is not meant to be an indictment of teachers and school leaders in public urban district schools, many who care passionately about educating children. Unfortunately, they—like their students—are trapped in school systems that give them little freedom to make meaningful changes that could improve educational outcomes.
Public charters have significantly more autonomy than district schools to innovate, and they are also accountable for results with significant oversight. If public charters are not getting strong results, Massachusetts’ charter authorizer can close them down.
Money, Money, Money
A major issue at the heart of this debate is money. Opponents of the ballot Initiative say charters cost district schools $450 million that could otherwise go to science classes, enrichment programs, and other activities. Let’s be clear: If the 32,600 students who have chosen to enroll in public charters suddenly returned to district schools, the money would go with them—and then these districts would be spending that money on teachers, classrooms, and other basic costs to educate these children—not for programming for existing students.
Based on the performance of urban districts, like Boston where only 40 percent of students in third through eighth grade are proficient in English and only 37 percent are proficient in math, they would not be educating them well.
Further, money does not seem to be holding districts back. As part of state law, districts that lose students to charters continue to get partial reimbursement for children they are not educating for six years—to the tune of $700 million dollars statewide. In Boston, while enrollment in the district declined by 4.5 percent over the last six years, the annual district budget increased by over 23 percent in the same time period, which equals an additional $192 million dollars per year.
Yet that increase in money has not translated into meaningful improvement in academic outcomes. And so there are 12,000 Boston students who have opted to attend charters, and an estimated 13,000 more Boston families who are on a charter waitlist, seeking another public school choice for their children.
Voting “No” on Ballot 2 dismisses the voices of these families. We owe these families in Boston and other communities across Massachusetts the dignity to make these choices for themselves.