It was a juxtaposition that demonstrates the way things are changing in Boston.
One of the elected officials who came to the State House this week to weigh in on charter schools was Boston Mayor Tom Menino. The mayor wants more charters that are subject to mayoral control (surprise, surprise), but doesn’t favor lifting the cap to allow more of the independent academies known as Commonwealth charters.
But Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh, a Democratic state representative from Dorchester, brought a very different message: He does support a cap lift on Commonwealth charters. Walsh is a labor guy, but as someone who helped found Dorchester’s Neighborhood House Charter School, he’s also seen firsthand the difference a high-quality charter can make.
“This is about the kids,” Walsh said after his testimony. “In my district, we have a lack of education, which leads to the other problems: lack of graduation rates, high crime, lack of job access.”
Nor is he the only mayoral candidate who wants to lift or eliminate the charter cap.
“We should definitely raise the cap,” says City Councilor John Connolly, a persistent advocate for a longer day for Boston Public Schools students. “There shouldn’t be a ceiling on success.” Connolly says that as mayor, he’d embrace the charters as an integral part of the city’s educational landscape.
Add Dan Conley, the Suffolk County district attorney, to the pro-charter camp. “I am in favor of getting rid of the cap, and if we can’t get rid of it, lifting it,” says Conley. “I believe that charter schools are performing at a high level, so I don’t see why we want to stifle that.”
The fact that three top-tier candidates support raising the cap shows how the political environment is changing.
That’s not, of course, a universal position among the incomplete list of mayoral hopefuls whose views I sought. City Councilor Mike Ross doesn’t support a cap lift, saying that as mayor, he’d instead try to win more flexibility for the traditional schools. City Councilor Rob Consalvo is skeptical about lifting the cap on independent charters, though he would support a cap lift on district-run charters. Former state representative Charlotte Golar Richie wants more in-district charters, her camp says, but hasn’t made up her mind on a larger cap lift. Boston School Committee member John Barros falls into the category of charter skeptic.
Still, the fact that three top-tier candidates support raising the cap on Commonwealth charters shows how the political environment is changing. So too does a new poll of Boston voters: Commissioned by two pro-charter groups and conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, it found that 64 percent of Boston voters want the charter cap lifted, with only 23 percent opposed. An early February poll done for an arm of Democrats for Education Reform also showed strong support for charters.
That only makes sense. Boston charters, after all, are offering considerably longer school days; Boston’s traditional schools, by contrast, won’t be adding any new teaching time under the contract that will govern the system at least through mid-2016.
And with those longer charter days come impressive academic results.
Over the years, as he’s been thwarted on various aspects of his education agenda, I’ve prodded Mayor Menino to support more Commonwealth charters. After the mayor testified against raising the charter cap this week, I queried him about a new study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which shows Boston charter students making significantly larger learning gains than their counterparts in the traditional Boston schools.
“I’m not going to get into a debate about charters,” his honor grumped. “You like that study, I don’t like it, OK?”
But why doesn’t he like it? Beyond quipping “because you read it,” the mayor wouldn’t answer.
Menino’s attitude about Commonwealth charters will obviously endure at City Hall through the end of this year. But against the backdrop of the no-new-school-time contract and the CREDO study, things are changing.
With a trio of front-runners firmly in favor of a cap lift, the mayoral field will be debating charters — and vigorously. The bet here is that Boston’s next mayor will end up being pro-charter.