The news that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has reversed her position on school choice and now opposes a ballot initiative to allow up to 12 new public charter schools per year in her home state, raises a fundamental question about the Bay State’s progressive values.
Should White middle-class voters across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decide if inner-city parents of color can or cannot choose the best public schools for their children?
Freedom and self-determination are core progressive values, and in cities like Boston, Lawrence, Lowell and Springfield, Black and Hispanic families are honoring these values by choosing public charter schools for their children. Demand is so high that more than 30,000 children across the state are on waiting lists to attend charter schools.
Shellina Mathurin’s child is one of them. A substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools, Ms. Mathurin lives in Dorchester with her three children, two of whom attend KIPP charter schools. Her oldest, a daughter, is in the Boston Public School system and has been on a charter school waiting list for four years.
She prefers charters for her children because the teachers in the traditional schools don’t have the time to give her child the attention she needs. “I’ve met some amazing teachers in the Boston Public School system but their hands are tied,” she said. She added that the charters are, “More responsive to challenges.”
Charter Schools Are Serving Communities of Color
According to multiple studies, Boston’s charters are among the very best in the country at serving low-income communities of color. The city’s charter high schools send 59 percent of their students to four-year colleges compared to 41 percent from the traditional public high schools.
The charter elementary schools are adding the equivalent of several weeks and even months of additional days in reading and math each year. If the interests of children were driving the debate, Massachusetts would have lifted the cap legislatively this past spring, but instead punted to voters.
Under ballot question 2, Ms. Mathurin’s fundamental right to choose where to enroll her children will be decided by people like Jenny Bender of Northampton, a mostly White, middle-class community 100 miles west of Boston described in Wikipedia as, “the most politically, liberal medium-sized city in the United States.”
A former public school teacher, Ms. Bender told her local newspaper that protecting public schools is a, “civil rights issue,” and that expansion of charters will be “the end of public schools.” She goes on to say, “Every child, no matter the level of intelligence, race or class deserves the same education.”
There is a lot in this statement to consider. First of all, evoking “civil rights” as a justification for denying a parent of color the freedom to enroll in a charter school may represent a new milestone of liberal hypocrisy.
Second, to suggest that charter schools could bring an “end” to public schools is somewhere between silly and shameful. Massachusetts public schools are among the best in the nation and funding for traditional schools in the state has gone up even as charters have expanded.
Finally, if children across Massachusetts were all getting, “the same education,” there would not be a pressing demand for alternatives.
Massachusetts teachers unions are spending as much as $12 million to defeat Question 2. Charter advocates are more than matching them but the union has a big advantage—active members in every community across the state and long-standing relationships with state and local elected officials going back decades.
Under pressure from the unions, hundreds of local school boards and town councils in Massachusetts have passed resolutions to keep the cap, even though most of them, like Northampton, don’t have charters and probably never will. Amazingly, in Boston, where charter demand and charter quality is highest, the City Council voted to keep the cap and the city’s “pro-charter” mayor is also opposed.
The union is pushing a false and disingenuous argument that charters drain funding from traditional public schools. But, charters are public schools, authorized by the state, open to the public and funded by taxpayers. The only money they “drain” is the money that follows the child when he or she changes schools.
Furthermore, under the most generous reimbursement policy in the country, traditional public schools that lose students to charters are subsidized by the state for six years to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Empowering White middle-class voters to deny choice to low-income families of color is anti-democratic and politically immoral. To honor its progressive values, the good people of Massachusetts have an obligation to vote yes on 2 and give all parents the same right to choose the best schools for their own children.