Charter schools started as an experiment, but over the last two decades, the innovative academies, which operate independently of local school committees and teachers’ unions, have become an established source of new strategies. Longer school days, intensive tutoring, and other ways to improve student performance have grown out of charter schools. Not every charter offers a better opportunity for needy urban children than their district schools, but parents clearly deserve the choice.
Now a coalition of education reformers is pushing to eliminate the cap on charters in the lowest-performing districts. Given the deficiencies of schools in those cities, and the frustratingly slow pace of reform in districts such as Boston, more charter schools will provide crucial opportunities for urban families. With a rigorous new study corroborating the significant learning gains Massachusetts charter schools impart, the time has come to remove the cap in those districts, which include New Bedford, Fall River, Brockton, Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Worcester, Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke.
Teachers’ unions have long been opposed to public schools that operate outside of their collective-bargaining process. In certain districts, particularly those under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, unions have made some efforts to embrace charter-style reforms. But other unions, particularly in the urban districts including Boston, have been resistant. Now, those same unions hope to use their clout with Democratic lawmakers to maintain the charter cap even in underperforming districts. But on this, like other education issues, the needs of the children must be paramount.
Last Tuesday, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education heard from urban parents and students about the important role charters had played in their lives. Yet the most telling testimony came from Edward Cremata of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes; he briefed lawmakers on a recent CREDO study that found the average charter school student in Massachusetts gains an additional month and a half in reading and two and a half months in math each year compared to his or her counterparts in traditional public schools.
In Boston, the results were eye-popping: Charter students gained an extra 12 months in reading/English and 13 months in math per school year. Charters also showed significantly higher rates of educational growth for black and Latino students and for those from impoverished families.
Forty-one percent of Boston students attend underperforming schools. Those families need the options charters offer, all the more so since Mayor Menino has been unable to get the Boston Teachers Union to accept a longer school day. Thus, Boston charter school students are receiving the equivalent of 62 extra days of instruction per year. Lawmakers shouldn’t deprive families of such a dramatic increase in opportunity simply to satisfy union demands.
That’s not to say that more charter schools are a cure for every failing of the traditional public schools. Charters don’t have as many special education students or pupils with serious disabilities as the district schools do. Charter foes also complain that charters don’t educate as large a percentage of English Language Learners, though that’s starting to change. On the other hand, Boston charters serve a larger percentage of African-American and Hispanic students than traditional schools.
Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, has it right: Education reform needs to move forward on two tracks. District schools need more of the autonomy and flexibility that has worked so well for charters. Thus, the coalition would eliminate the statewide cap on district-controlled charter schools; permit the creation of new in-district charters without union sign-off in the lowest performing districts; allow restructured “turnaround” schools to keep their remedial changes beyond the three-year turnaround window; eliminate the need for union approval before in-district charters are renewed; and give increased turnaround authority to more lagging schools.
Given the wide consensus that the 2010 law that added more charter schools and enacted further reforms has been a success, proposals to enhance its initiatives make sense. As for union concerns, the principle should be clear. In districts where school performance is strong or satisfactory, teachers have a right to expect that big changes will be negotiated rather than legislatively imposed. Conversely, in poorly performing districts, union opposition can’t stand in the way of providing new choices for parents and students.