Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Roadblock for charter schools

HAREBRAINED MOVES by the Legislature and Board of Education have flipped the world of Massachusetts charter schools upside down. Suddenly Brockton, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Fall River, and other low-income urban communities have either reached the enrollment cap or been tripped up by technicalities during efforts to open new charter schools. Meanwhile, suburban and rural communities, including Dennis-Yarmouth, Greenfield, and Spencer, suddenly are in a position to double the number of students who can attend charter schools, although no operators are currently knocking on their doors. The bottom line: It is likely that, for the first time since 1996, no new independently-run charter school will open its doors in Massachusetts.

Results on statewide MCAS assessment exams aren’t the last word in educational quality. But such test scores speak loudly to black and Hispanic parents whose children attending charter schools score about 20 points higher in the proficient and advanced categories on MCAS exams than their district counterparts. About 45,000 students are on the waiting lists of 71 charter schools in Massachusetts. They are the victims here.

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The situation started to deteriorate last summer when state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, who co-chairs the education committee, jammed the legislative equivalents of nightshade, hemlock, and strychnine into a bill to raise the cap on the number of charter schools. Chang-Diaz put on a big show of wrestling with a moral dilemma as she tried to reconcile her respect for high achieving charter schools and her suspicion that they creamed the best students away from urban school districts.

It was bunkum. Chang-Diaz was spellbound by a group of Boston Public Schools parents in her district who demonize charter schools. They see the specter of privatization at work in charter schools that operate without the restraints imposed by teachers unions. And while outwardly progressive, these charter school opponents can’t seem to get comfortable with the fact that minority families with less money and political clout hunger for meaningful educational choices.

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Around the same time that the Legislature failed to lift the cap, the bumbling state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education undermined the essential role of charter schools in large urban school districts with high concentrations of poverty. Normally, charter schools are given more room for growth in the lowest-performing 10 percent of school districts on the MCAS exam. It’s a sensible policy that favored expansion in big cities. But in June, the board and Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester made a foolish decision to use a new measurement emphasizing biennial growth rates. That bounced several urban school districts out of the bottom category.

High growth on test scores is praiseworthy. But it shouldn’t be confused with high achievement on student tests, especially when the gains are measured from very low starting points. And in some cases, even those gains were insignificant. Brockton, for example, moved out of the bottom category when 43 percent of students scored proficient or better on the 2014 English and math MCAS tests. That’s just 1 percentage point higher than the 2012 exam. Yet the change in status meant sudden death for the creation of Brockton’s first charter school, which had already passed muster with state education evaluators. A charter school proposal in Fitchburg perished in similar fashion.

Charter school supporters had warned the board and Chester that the changes would hurt families in urban districts. No one — including Governor Patrick — listened.

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One hopeful sign comes from the two front-runners in next month’s gubernatorial election. Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley have condemned the Board of Education vote and are calling on its members to reverse the dense decision that undermines charter schools in urban areas where they are needed most. The Race to the Top Coalition, which includes the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the Black Ministerial Alliance, reinforced that message yesterday, citing the “perverse effect” of the formula change.

Charter school opponents, meanwhile, are sure to go on the march now that they have tasted victory in Brockton and Fitchburg. Expect to see a slew of anti-charter school bills introduced in the Legislature during the coming months. Teachers union officials, school committees, and district school superintendents will double their opposition to the funding formula that supports charter schools with money that would otherwise flow to public school districts. Opponents will do anything to stop the advancement of charter schools. Anything, that is, except adopting the longer school day and better instructional practices that make families want to send their kids to charter schools in the first place.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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