A child’s destiny should not be determined by her zip code. Massachusetts has been a leader in public education reform for nearly two decades, but persistent poverty- and race-based achievement gaps in low-income communities are reminders that we have not done enough to meet our commitment to offer educational opportunity to every young person in the Commonwealth. These inequalities persist under our watch despite clear policy options that work but are not available in every community where they are needed.
Statewide testing results demonstrate that white students score far better than children from minority or low-income families. A 2010 state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education study reported a 25 to 30 percentage-point proficiency gap between African American, Hispanic and low-income students and white students in reading and math. More than one-third of students in the Commonwealth’s urban school districts are still failing MCAS exams, and they can’t graduate from high school without passing that test.
Young adults who are failing in inner city schools consequently lack the skills necessary to compete in the workforce and create a drag on the Commonwealth’s economy. This is something the business community should not only pay attention to but also fear.
By 2018, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 68 percent of jobs in Massachusetts will require a career certificate or college degree. Currently, only half the Commonwealth’s adults hold an associates degree or higher. When business leaders are unable to fill their job openings with the local workforce, they will look elsewhere to hire and grow their businesses.
The Legislature has the opportunity to build on the state’s two-decades of successful efforts to raise academic standards, strengthen accountability, and increase parental choice, and it must be done to give all children an education that sets them up for success, rather than inevitable failure.
Legislation filed by Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan) and Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover, and one the authors of this essay) would eliminate the enrollment cap on Commonwealth charter public schools in the lowest-performing school districts. It would also provide local superintendents and state education officials with expedited authority to turnaround underperforming district schools.
New powers would include extending the school day and retaining only high-performing teachers and administrators. To reduce the number of children stuck in severely underperforming schools, we have to eliminate the “us versus them” mentality pitting unions against the charter school movement. Teachers are critical to the success of these changes and, thus, the success of our children.
Nearly 30 percent of public school students — more than 250,000 in all — are enrolled in the state’s lowest performing districts. In spite of billions of dollars in supplemental funding over the past 20 years, academic improvement in these districts has stalled.
Conversely, studies consistently show that charters are closing the achievement gap in these problem districts. Thirteen urban charter public schools had the highest scores in the state last year on various MCAS measurements – outperforming affluent suburban schools.
A new Stanford University report found that Boston charter public schools are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country, providing a typical student with more than 12 months of additional learning per year in reading and thirteen months greater progress per year in math.
Not surprisingly, charters are in great demand. Charter enrollment lotteries were held this month at schools across the state, and in Boston alone, more than 13,000 applications were received for fewer than 1,700 available seats.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently approved five new charter public schools and gave 11 existing charters permission to expand, creating 3,000 new charter openings statewide. Unless the Legislature acts, however, these will be among the last new charter public schools in the neediest districts, including Boston, Lawrence, Holyoke, Lowell and Chelsea, and several smaller communities in Central and Western Massachusetts.
Charters are not a “one-size fits all” solution to closing the achievement gap; instead, they are a piece of the larger education reform puzzle. Moreover, these schools, like all others, will be held accountable for both their successes and failures.
If we are to provide urban students with a realistic path to prosperity, we need to give them a solid educational foundation. That means building on reforms we have already implemented and providing more access to high-quality charter public schools.
State Sen. Barry Finegold represents Andover, Dracut, Lawrence, and Tewksbury. Paul Sagan, former CEO of Akamai Technologies, is chairman of the Massachusetts Business Leaders for Charter Public Schools.