Why Massachusetts Charters Stand Out

Why Massachusetts Charters Stand Out
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Jamie Kaczowski laughs with her classmates as they line up to graduate from BART charter high school at Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., Saturday, June 7, 2014. (AP Photo/The Berkshire Eagle, Stephanie Zollshan)

RCEd Commentary

On Tuesday, the national political battle over charter schools will fight another round in Massachusetts.

Proponents portray charters as mission driven to educate the least advantaged students—the same students that district schools have failed. Opponents paint charters as unaccountable “public-private” schools that cream the best students and drain resources from district schools. That opposition has culminated nationally in the venerated NAACP calling for a national moratorium on charter schools. For Massachusetts, a similar decision comes in the form of Ballot Question 2, which asks whether the state should lift its cap on charter schools.

Question 2’s national implications have drawn commentary, advocacy, and millions of fundraising dollars for both sides from outside the state. Nationally, the divergent conceptions of charters make sense because there are many charters that fit both descriptions. But the decision before Bay State voters should be separated from that national context. Massachusetts’ charter schools stand head and shoulders above those in most other states in terms of the students they serve, the effects they produce, and their impact on district schools.

What kinds of students do Massachusetts charters serve? This question can be hard to answer because district schools serve students everywhere, while charters only exist in some areas. That difference makes simple comparisons misleading. More telling contrasts can be made by comparing students in charters to those attending the district schools near them.

Massachusetts charters stand apart from those in other states in how many disadvantaged students they serve. It is true that most Massachusetts charters are in disadvantaged areas, but even within these areas, charters serve more disadvantaged students than the district schools those students would likely otherwise attend. In a recent report comparing state charter schools sectors, I found that more than most states, Massachusetts charters serve more poor, black and special education students than the district schools nearest them. While charters often serve fewer limited English proficient students than neighboring schools, the gap is narrower in Massachusetts than in most other states.

Of course, much of the debate centers on how well charters educate students, not just which students they educate. Nationwide, charter school academics differ dramatically, with some high flyers, some abject failures, and most somewhere in between. Here again, Massachusetts charters outperform charters in other states. Studies show that students who won random admission lotteries to attend urban charter schools in Massachusetts made far more academic progress than students who lost, and disadvantaged winners benefitted the most. Another recent study showed that the charter expansion since the charter cap was last raised in 2010 maintained these effects. Massachusetts is not the only state with effective urban charters, but it is unique in how big a difference its charters make, especially for disadvantaged students.

While Massachusetts’ urban charters have been wildly successful, the state’s suburban charters have proven about as good as, or worse than, district schools. These relatively ineffective suburban charters are not at full enrollment, and therefore can continue to grow under the current cap. Ironically, it’s the demonstrably effective urban charters, whose demand is high and waitlists are long, that cannot expand unless the cap is lifted.

Opponents argue that lifting the cap will divert state funds from local districts. When students move to charters, funding follows them, so the district schools will have fewer students to teach and lower funding. However, the claim that this will significantly hurt district schools is exaggerated. Far more than other states, Massachusetts has taken steps to cushion district schools from lost funds.

Massachusetts reimburses districts for 100 percent of lost funding for the first year, and for 25 percent for 5 more years. This generous cushion means that lifting the cap will result in marginal funding changes for districts and extended timelines for them to adjust. Voters should also know that any funding changes will primarily impact urban districts currently constrained by the cap.

Despite the national charter debate, Bay State voters should focus on what the current cap means for Massachusetts. In a state served uncommonly well by most public schools, the vote on Ballot Question 2 will determine whether charters can serve more students in the neediest districts. A vote to lift the cap will allow more of the 30,000, mostly disadvantaged students on waitlists to attend outstanding urban charter schools. A vote to keep the cap will hold harmless the minority of struggling district schools. Though many suspect there is insufficient support for lifting the cap, Massachusetts could again prove itself exceptional by doing so on Tuesday.

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