Charter schools are public schools that give kids in underperforming districts a better public school option. That’s not something you’ve heard, at least not from the teachers union, which has spent $10 million from their war chest in a highly publicized campaign to defeat Question 2. But as co-chair of Excel Academy Charter Schools, that is exactly what we provide to 1,000 students in Boston.
Consider this: only 36 percent of Boston Public School eighth-grade students were reading and doing math at their grade level according to June PARCC standardized test results. These are frightening test results by any measure—what’s more frightening is that they have barely made any improvement over the past several years.
Clearly there should be alarm and a sense of urgency to rapidly and dramatically improve outcomes in Boston Public Schools, even though funding has increased by 25 percent over the last five years. Unions are just and honorable when they protect the underdog, but in this case, the teachers’ union is focused on trying to prevent parents from choosing better options for their children by campaigning against the growth in charter schools. When students move to charter schools, teachers’ jobs move from union to non-union, which reduces union dues and power base.
At Excel, a different story is emerging. 79 percent of our eighth-grade students scored advanced or proficient in math and English on the same PARCC tests. This feat is all the more impressive considering that most of our incoming 5th grade students arrive with reading comprehension skills 1-3 years below their grade level. Our charter schools are far more rigorous and disciplined, resulting in school suspensions at 12 percent versus 5 percent at public schools. Yet in the long run, that short term pain creates long term learning and commitment, resulting in 9 percent attrition for our charter schools versus 14 percent for comparable public schools.
And it’s not just our school. Massachusetts has the best public charter schools in the nation, as study after study has shown, from Stanford to MIT to Harvard. They are an incredibly effective solution for students in our poor, inner-city educational system because they provide more personal attention and longer school hours that translate into hundreds of hours of additional learning.
Charter schools in part outperform their public school neighbors because they are non-unionized and therefore have the autonomy to fix what isn’t working in the public school system. The teaching day is much longer and as such, students get more time from their teachers. Additionally, the classroom environment is more structured so that the students are focused on learning throughout the day.
Charter teachers’ compensation is at market rate rather than dictated by the union, so these parents get more from their tax dollars. Our teachers are passionate educators from some of the best schools in the country, and only one in thirty applicants is hired. Underperforming teachers at charter schools are not allowed to continue indefinitely whereas it is very difficult for public schools to fire underperforming teachers under union rules. A Stanford study concluded that Boston-based charter school students learned the equivalent amount as their public school neighbors by December of the school year.
Boston charter schools like Excel are open to all Boston families on a blind lottery basis. At Excel, 75 percent of our families are low-income, 60 percent do not speak English as their first language, nearly 20 percent of our students have special needs, 40 percent of incoming students are English language-learners, and 88 percent of our students are Black or Latino, many coming from families that are first or second-generation immigrants.
The mission of Boston charter schools in Massachusetts serve the needs of our most economically and educationally disadvantaged public school children with a better education than traditional public schools provide today. If we allow the teachers’ union to impose the cap, the poor performance of public schools will continue and parents will be robbed of better school options.
Right now, we have 32,000 children on a wait list in Massachusetts trying to get into a public charter. Of the 312 cities in Massachusetts, roughly twenty have or need charter schools. The current charter cap is preventing new charter schools in those underperforming, poorer neighborhoods. Lifting the cap, as Question 2 proposes, would simply give parents a choice to pick the right school for their child. But absent a cap lift, too many Massachusetts children will continue, from one generation to the next, to receive a vastly inferior education, drop out of high school, and end up without a college degree and without a job. The cost for the child is huge, as is the burden it puts on society in the long run. Yet the teachers’ union, under the guise of “Save Our Public Schools,” is trying to frighten voters into believing that Question 2 would put their children’s public education at risk.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In Massachusetts, money follows the child from one public school (the child’s underperforming district school) to another (the public charter). Funding that comes from the state is 100% reimbursed in the first year to the previous public school and 25 percent for the following five years. This provides a bridge for the public school to manage through the loss of associated revenues and it is the most generous reimbursement policy in the nation. In fact, public charter school expansion has led to more than $230 million in additional public education funding over the past five years alone. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation just published a comprehensive study on charter school funding and found that there is no significant drain on public school funding, if a drain at all.
In fact, charter schools are a source of incremental and more efficient private capital for public schools. Over $25 million was raised from thousands of private individual and institutional donors for charter schools last year in Massachusetts. These funds, along with tens of millions more in private debt funding, are used to build and improve new public schools and cover the operating deficit that state funding does not cover. Just last month, Excel opened our 650-student high school in East Boston at a cost of $23 million, which is a small fraction of the cost and debt that new high schools have been built across Massachusetts, such as Newton North, Concord, and Lincoln-Sudbury. This represents hundreds of millions of additional funding from private debt and equity to support public schools.
If the teacher’s union is successful with their “No” vote on charter schools, then charter schools in Massachusetts will lose many of their funding sources for both new and existing schools because these charitable institutions and individuals will view Massachusetts as having lost its leadership and commitment to public education reform. The November 8 vote may be lost because of the false accusations by the teacher’s union that public school students are losing funding. The irony is that, if successful, a “No” vote will actually extinguish an enormous amount of public school funding and a highly effective and thriving catalyst to public school educational reform.
I believe in our public district schools. But I also believe that public charters provide a high quality alternative in our urban communities. Leaders and newspapers across party lines including Charlie Baker, Alice Peisch, The Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald are pushing for more charter schools, primarily to stimulate necessary improvements in the underperforming public schools. Clearly we are looking to directly improve the education of charter school students, but the Holy Grail is when there are enough high quality charter schools across the state and the educational inequity is so clear that local and state voters force their elected officials to implement these proven methodologies in our lagging public schools. Charter school expansion will act as a sea of change that will allow all underperforming public school children to benefit. Without a forcing function, change will be slow at best and we will continue to live with more of the same.
After all, who are we to say that a parent should not have the ability to move their child from a failing public school to a highly successful, high-energy charter school? Who are we to tell those children that they have to leave the charter school they love and return to a poor performing public high school? Those are the choices we are facing with the vote on November 8th.
A “Yes” vote on Question 2 will allow us to create new charter schools where they are needed most. It will help to expand great charter schools that are already serving needy communities, as we have at Excel, so kids can continue from middle school to high school. It will put pressure on underperforming district schools in the same neighborhoods as exceptional charter schools to dramatically improve the quality of their education or be shut down. Most importantly, it will provide all families with a choice—the choice to ensure a better education and greater life for their children.
Charter schools need to grow in Massachusetts to improve the quality of education for the poorly performing public schools. The teachers’ union has dominated public education for decades, but on November 8th, parents and voters have a say on our children’s education. Vote “Yes” on Question 2 and provide our economically and educationally disadvantaged children with a voice and a choice. If you do, charter school children, teachers, and backers will continue working tirelessly to outperform, open new schools, and truly make education reform a reality in Massachusetts.