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SCOT LEHIGH

Calling the bluff on charter schools

Good news on Beacon Hill.

This week, the House passed a charter-cap lift that would give more opportunities to urban students while addressing concerns of charter foes.

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The spotlight now shifts to the Senate. Will senators join the House — or scuttle a bill that is anathema to urban teachers’ unions?

The House’s modest cap lift targets the state’s lowest-performing districts, allowing charter spending to increase by 5 percent over five years, starting in the fall of 2017. The short-to-medium term effect would mean more charter school slots offered by proven providers in Boston, Fall River, Holyoke, Chelsea, Greenfield, and North Adams.

Developed by House Education chair Alice Peisch and given a crucial push by Speaker Robert DeLeo, the legislation addresses several oft-invoked concerns about charters. Some opponents assert that charter students do well principally because they have knowledgeable, involved parents, as evidenced by the fact that they entered their children in the lottery for a charter slot. That claim doesn’t hold water; two rigorous academic studies have controlled for the involved-parents factor by comparing the educational progress of kids who won a charter slot with those who applied but didn’t get a spot. Although both groups had involved parents, the charter students did significantly better over time.

Still, those objections persist. Thus the lotteries for the new charter slots must include all eligible pupils; slot winners can then opt out if they want. Such a lottery should also result in a charter-school student body with the same rough percentage of English language learners as the district schools. Alternatively, new charters could specifically target drop-outs or students at risk of dropping out.

Opponents charge that charters do better through the attrition of struggling students; the House bill includes a preference for charter operators with attrition rates that compare favorably with the traditional public schools.

Senators must now answer a simple question: Whose side are they really on?

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When efforts for a joint House-Senate bill collapsed earlier this spring, one of the big objections of Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senate chair of the Education Committee, was that the charter-school reimbursement formula hasn’t always been fully funded. That objection was a little dubious, given that the formula calls for reimbursing district schools 225 percent of the cost of educating students after they’ve left for a charter; thus even if the formula isn’t always fully funded, the district schools are still generously paid for students no longer there.

But the Legislature has now fully funded the formula for this fiscal year. The House’s budget calls for funding it at about 77 percent next year; Peisch says that percentage will probably increase. But again, even if it doesn’t, traditional schools will get a relatively generous payment, extended over six years, for students they no longer educate. By contrast, if a student leaves a charter, the charter loses all of his or her dollars the very next quarter.

None of that is likely to placate the Boston Teachers Union, its counterparts in other cities, or the American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has warned legislators that it will be watching their votes on this issue.

But it’s time to get down to brass tacks here. Clear away the fog and the smokescreens, and the real issues for the unions clearly center on self-interest. Charter schools, though they can be unionized, aren’t automatically union schools. Further, they usually provide longer hours than the traditional schools, and for the same per-pupil dollars that district schools get for shorter days. 

Charters see longer days as crucial to their success; that’s also part of the appeal for parents. But as we’ve seen in Boston with the BTU, unionized teachers haven’t been willing to work a longer day for an amount the city can afford. That’s their prerogative, certainly. But they can’t be allowed both to reject an affordable longer day themselves and to stymie any expansion by other schools that will offer a longer day and year.

Yet that’s what Senate inaction would do.

Probably the biggest reason joint House-Senate efforts hit a dead end in March was that Chang-Diaz seemed paralyzed by her inability to resolve all the concerns of charter opponents. That’s probably an impossible task. But the House’s legislation is a good-faith effort to address the big ones.

Senators must now answer a simple question: Whose side are they really on?

Will they stand with disadvantaged urban students who need the educational options charters offer — or with the unions who view the charters’ success as a threat?

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