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scot lehigh

Raise the charter-school cap again

It was very good news for some families in Fall River and Lawrence, but Monday’s front-page Globe story also underscored an important reality about improving urban education. Although that reality will make teachers’ unions and their allies uncomfortable, it’s one policymakers will soon have to reckon with.

But first the news: Massachusetts and four other states have received a federal go-ahead to use dollars intended for tutoring or after-school programs to pay teachers to extend the school day in some traditional public schools. As a result, 5,000 kids in 10 schools in those two cities will benefit from a longer school day starting next fall.

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And now the reality: Around the state, charter schools are already providing that longer day, and for the same basic per-pupil amount that, in the traditional public schools, buys only a shorter day. We now know that more learning time is often important to boosting the educational performance of urban kids from low-income families. The looming question for policymakers, then, is this: When it comes to bang for the buck, what’s the best way to expand the benefits of more learning time to the maximum number of those students?

It’s not by paying individual traditional schools more for longer days and years. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of the work local education activist Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the group Massachusetts 2020, has done to promote a longer school day in the traditional schools. His tireless efforts have demonstrated the strong results that can come when those schools adopt a well-designed expanded-learning-time program.

Yet another thing we’ve learned is that, when it comes to extending the school day or year in the traditional schools, the process is frustratingly slow and, at a cost of about $1,300 more per student, sometimes simply unaffordable.

Witness the recent experience in the Boston Public Schools: Even with the offer of a $2,250 annual stipend — a stipend that would have come on top of the yearly raises traditional school teachers routinely get — Mayor Menino and Superintendent Carol Johnson weren’t able to win union agreement for an extra 45 minutes of teaching time for kindergarten through eighth grade.

Now consider the fact that the average Boston charter-school day is two hours longer than the traditional BPS day, without any additional stipend. If a longer urban school day is the priority it should be, the best course is obvious: Raise the charter cap again.

When it comes to extending the school day or year in the traditional schools, the process is frustratingly slow.

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To put the matter bluntly, in a time of scarce public dollars, it simply doesn’t make sense for strapped urban districts to pay traditional school teachers more for a longer day when charter schools can and will deliver more learning time for less.

Further, to move from efficiency to equity, assuming there was additional money to sprinkle around, aren’t the charter teachers the ones who really deserve a pay bonus? They, after all, are already providing a longer day, and they often earn less than their traditional school counterparts. In Boston, the average teacher in the unionized schools makes about $81,600, while the average charter-school teacher makes about $60,000.

“Charters are a bargain, and we can maintain that bargain, but if teachers are going to be paid extra to expand the school day, maybe we should be rewarding those teachers who have been extending it for the last 20 years,” says Kevin Andrews, headmaster at Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester and chairman of the Boston Alliance of Charter Schools.

It’s hard to disagree with that.

These are issues that will likely come to the fore next year. Education reformers are already preparing to push for another charter-cap lift. That will no doubt engender heated opposition from the teachers’ unions, but they shouldn’t expect policymakers to forgo the most cost-effective way to lengthen the school day. What’s more, competition is a fact of life for most people; unions, particularly entrenched unions like the BTU, certainly shouldn’t be immune from it.

If parents and students judge the education BTU teachers offer in shorter-day traditional schools equal or superior to that of the charters, the traditional schools will do just fine.

If not, those schools will have to change.

Either way, students and families would benefit from the expanded options and competition. And it’s their interests that policymakers must put first.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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