Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Foreshadowing the charter school debate

We’re in the calm before the storm on the charter-school front — and that’s why Thursday’s forum on “Civil Rights, Charters Schools, & Teachers Unions” was so interesting: It hinted at how the fight will be framed in the next few years.

It could be a very public battle. Both the pro- and anti-charter sides are said to be mulling statewide ballot questions on the matters. Charter supporters have used that tactic before to push the Legislature to act. Meanwhile, sources say that Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, recently held a meeting of union officials to discuss a possible anti-charter-school ballot initiative.

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“We’re talking about the charter cap, that’s all I can say,” Madeloni replied when I asked about it.

An MTA-led, union-sponsored anti-charter question could put Democrats in this awkward position: Choosing between the unions, their most important electoral allies, and minority families, many of whom see charter schools as desirable options for their kids.

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Indeed, a tension between teachers union interests and minority-community concerns underlay the panel discussion at Thursday’s event, which was sponsored by the Pioneer Institute, the Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, among others.

That discussion pitted Kevin Andrews, the former (and founding) headmaster of Dorchester’s Neighborhood House Charter School, and Gerard Robinson, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options Action Fund, against Madeloni and Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts.

Two things struck me. First, the extent to which Gosnell and Madeloni argued that problems in urban education resulted from broader societal issues such as poverty, racism, economic inequality, and homelessness. There’s truth there, to be sure. Yet given the success charters have had in addressing the achievement gap, it’s disingenuous to suggest that real educational gains can’t be made until those larger problems are solved.

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The second was the degree to which charter opponents, on the panel and in the audience, employed threadbare arguments to paint charters as self-interested, profit-making organizations with an exclusionary mission and a determined strategy of forcing out harder-to-educate students. To their credit, Andrews and Robinson regularly cut through the fog of false arguments; as debaters, they were the clear winners.

Later, I asked Madeloni if she had read the two studies, one by Harvard and MIT, one by MIT alone, comparing the academic performance of kids who won a charter slot in the blind lotteries with those who entered the lotteries but hadn’t secured a spot.

Why was I asking, she wanted to know? Well, because those studies had demonstrated significant relative gains for the charter students on the MCAS.

“I want to answer the question that matters,” Madeloni said, saying that “the question of how we even determine what constitutes success in a school needs to be clearly evaluated.”

I, however, wanted an answer to the question I’d asked, so I persisted.

“I haven’t read that study,” she eventually conceded.

Consider: Academics at two world-renowned local universities have done careful research on charter schools in Boston, yet the president of the MTA, who is emerging as a determined charter foe, hasn’t read that work.

I noted to Madeloni that someone who purports to be knowledgeable about education policy and who plans on playing a big role in the charter debate should be familiar with that research. And I asked if she would commit to reading it.

“I feel very comfortable with my knowledge,” she replied, before adding: “I certainly will.”

I was surprised and pleased to hear that.

Good for you, Barbara.

Call me when you’ve finished, and we’ll talk again.

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

Related:

Scot Lehigh: Joel Klein’s advice for Mass. education reform

Lawrence Harmon: Roadblock for charter schools

Paul Reville: The next steps in education reform

Tara Holm: The real reason why the US is falling behind in math

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