Politics

Question 2: Should Mass. lift the charter school cap?

A City on a Hill Charter School student volunteer checked names of future students drawn from a list of hopefuls on lottery day in 2014.
Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff
A City on a Hill Charter School student volunteer checked names of future students drawn from a list of hopefuls on lottery day in 2014.

Question 2 asks voters whether Massachusetts should lift its cap on charter schools, allowing some existing charters to expand and new schools to open.

Charters are public schools that have a freer hand with curriculum, budget, and personnel decisions than traditional public schools.

Supporters say Massachusetts charters are making impressive strides in poor, racially segregated urban areas and should be expanded to offer parents more choices. Critics say they drain too much money from traditional public schools that serve the bulk of students.

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What exactly would Question 2 do? If voters pass the ballot measure, the state’s board of education could approve 12 new or expanded charter schools per year.

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If there are more than 12 applications in a given year, the board would give preference to proposals in districts that fall in the bottom 25 percent on state tests.

Approval of the measure could mean significant additions, over time, to the current stock of 78 charter schools statewide.

There were 32,646 students on charter school wait lists in Massachusetts as of March 2016, the most recent official count.

How have charter schools performed? Charter schools nationwide have a mixed record. But research shows that, in Massachusetts, urban charters have made strong gains among low-income black and Latino students.

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A recent Brookings Institution review of the literature shows students attending these urban charters are learning more, scoring better on their SATs, and attending college at higher rates than students who applied for charters but did not win the lotteries used to determine admission.

The review found that “test-score gains produced by Boston’s charters are some of the largest that have ever been documented for an at-scale educational intervention,” better than the Head Start early education program, for instance, or a small-class-size experiment in Tennessee.

The Brookings paper shows that Massachusetts charters have not had a positive effect in suburban and rural areas. But as the researchers note, the state’s current cap does not limit charter expansion in those areas, so the ballot measure will have no impact on the rate of growth there.

What is the financial impact of charters on traditional public schools? State law requires the money to follow the child. So a student who leaves a traditional public school for a charter takes thousands of dollars in education aid with him.

In the current fiscal year, charter schools are expected to drain $451 million from traditional public schools in all — a figure that has become a rallying cry for the opposition to Question 2.

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The funding shift does not necessarily mean that local school districts end up with less money overall, though. In Boston, for instance, officials have compensated for the loss in aid by shifting funding from other city departments into the schools, according to a report by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, though, has argued the city cannot continue to make up for the decline in education aid, calling it “a structural tension in our budget that is steadily building to a crisis.”

What is the role of race in the charter school debate? The fight over charter school expansion has become highly racialized. Supporters say bringing high-quality education to poor, racially segregated neighborhoods is the civil rights issue of our time. But the New England Area Council of the NAACP, which opposes the ballot question, says it would create a two-track school system, disadvantaging the traditional public schools that serve the bulk of black and Latino students.

Key figures on both sides of the ballot fight are white — from the teachers union leadership, which opposes the measure, to the financiers bankrolling the “Yes on 2” campaign. That’s created some awkward optics, given that many charter schools are overwhelmingly black and Latino.

Many of the families filling up the charter waitlists in urban areas are minorities, too.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe