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Teachers on opposite sides of the charter school debate speak out

They’ve taught in both charter and regular public schools, and they know how they’re voting on Question 2 and why.

Angela Rubenstein, public school teacher against Question 2.

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe staff

Angela Rubenstein, public school teacher against Question 2.

Question 2, the referendum on November’s Massachusetts state ballot proposing to let up to 12 more charter schools open or expand each year than current limits, is expected to draw a record-setting $30 million in TV advertising spending by backers and opponents by the time polls open. The dollars might seem out of whack, given that if Question 2 passes it would be more than a decade before even 10 percent of the state’s public schools were charters (today just 78 of our 1,854 K-12 public schools are).

The proposal looks incremental, but, nationally, this ballot question is seen as a shootout at the OK Corral for charter schools, says Paul Reville, who was then governor Deval Patrick’s secretary of education and is now a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He says Question 2 could eventually see hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid follow students to charter schools, threatening the status quo.

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Charter schools are supposed to shake things up. Back in 1993, when Massachusetts became one of the first eight states to enact a charter school law, one hope was that they would become innovation laboratories for other public schools. If the new schools had more applicants than spaces, a lottery ensured they weren’t skimming the best students from existing public schools.

Massachusetts has been much slower to adopt charter schools than many places, averaging 3.3 a year since 1993. Compare Boston with two similarly sized cities, Denver and Detroit. Denver has 55 public charters, Detroit 94. Boston? 22. Both opponents and proponents agree that this careful approach has meant most Massachusetts charter schools have been high quality, but it also means demand goes unfilled, primarily in the state’s big cities. The question is on the ballot because the state Legislature has failed to craft a cap increase over the last two years.

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For some ground-level insight into Question 2, we talked to two teachers who have worked in both regular public and charter schools about what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

ANTI CHARTER/QUESTION 2

Originally inspired to teach after reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools in a college class, Angela Rubenstein later left a teaching job at a traditional high school to become a founding member of Rowe Clark Math & Science Academy, a charter school in Chicago. Rubenstein, 34, is now in her second year teaching math at Roxbury’s Rafael Hernandez School, a traditional public school.

Q. How did your experience at a charter school influence your decision to return to a traditional public school?

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A. I worked on a team of eight teachers and six staff to open a brand new [charter] school. We had the best intentions and did some good things for kids. Over the course of my four years [there], I saw high teacher turnover and high student attrition. We were trying to hold students to high standards and to keep them accountable for their actions, but, ultimately, they were treated as untrustworthy. For a student to use the bathroom, an escort from the office had to be called to accompany the student there and back. There was a very strict code of conduct, and if students broke any of the rules, they earned demerits. Many of the kids who struggled to follow the rules left. Teachers were expected to work very long teaching days and to lead at least one extracurricular activity. I knew that I wanted to start a family and that I couldn’t work that many hours with that little pay. I still work about 50-55 hours per week, but it is better than the 65 that I was working before.

Q. As someone who has experienced teaching in both traditional and charter public schools, are there things charter schools would do well to emulate from traditional public schools and vice versa?

A. One of the things that I think good charters do well is using research-based best practices in academic approaches and sticking very closely to a coherent, aligned instructional model. The Edward Brooke is an example of a school that does that really well in Boston. My [former] school’s strengths included a really unified vision and approach and robust weekly professional development for teachers. These are things that some traditional schools have, but many don’t. My current traditional school has a strong focus on restorative justice (resolving conflicts by facilitating reconciliation instead of punishments like suspension from school), which I believe is much, much better for kids than the demerits and detentions my charter school issued.

Q. Do you believe that all public schools should be “traditional” schools, or do you see a role for public charter schools?

A. Existing charter schools that are doing a good job should definitely keep up the good work. But charters were originally intended to be laboratories for innovation that would benefit the rest of the public schools, and I don’t see this happening very much.

Q. What is the most common misconception that you think the general public has about charter schools?

A. That they are uniformly good or better than traditional schools. There is so much variation from school to school, it is simply not true. I would also like any charter school publicizing its high test scores or graduation rates to also publicize its attrition rates.

PRO CHARTER/QUESTION 2

Linda Rae Krov, charter school teacher in favor.

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe staff

Linda Rae Krov, charter school teacher in favor.

Linda Rae Krov was inspired to teach by the example of her parents, both educators, and by a beloved music teacher in high school. Krov, 29, got her start teaching performing arts at traditional schools in her native New Jersey and in Pennsylvania. She moved to Boston three years ago to teach music, theater, and dance at KIPP Academy Boston Elementary, a public charter school in Mattapan.

Q. How did your experience at a traditional public school influence your decision to become a charter school teacher?

A. As a music teacher in a traditional public school, I was seeing my students roughly an hour a month. I kept thinking about the impact I could have on my students if only I had more time. In my current position, I see my students roughly 10 hours per month, which gives me time to understand their individual skills and needs and personalize their instruction. The additional time gives them the confidence to apply their music knowledge to their other school subjects. One student, who happens to have an IEP [Individual Education Programs are for students with special needs], has been using his rhythm reading skills to help him break down syllables in difficult words when he is reading. His homeroom teacher and I build on his success in music and collaborate with his parents to use those skills to help him in other areas.

Q. As someone who has experienced teaching in both traditional and charter public schools, are there things each would do well to emulate from the other?

A. At the school that I’m at, teachers have a really big hand in designing the curriculum, which is really helpful for us because we get to develop it a little bit more than curriculum that’s handed down. In the traditional public school where I came from . . . I remember we had a lot of opportunity to have school assemblies. I would love us to have more school assemblies [at KIPP], so that all the grade levels can see each other performing and presenting their work, because I think that’s really great for school culture.

Q. Based on your experience, do you think there should be any cap on the expansion of charter public schools, or do you think their growth should be unlimited?

A. Since I started teaching our founding class of kindergarten students, I have had the dream that I would also be the music teacher that works with those students on their final performances of their high school career. With a cap in place, that opportunity doesn’t exist [because it would be difficult to start a related high school]. The important thing here is that parents have the choice, because there are really amazing traditional schools and really amazing charter schools.

Q. What is the most common misconception that you think the general public has about charter schools?

A. Typically, the idea is that charter schools don’t take students who have IEPs, they don’t take students who are English language learners, they don’t keep students who have behavioral difficulties. We have all sorts of students in our school.

Andrew Levinsky is a writer in Boston. Send letters to magazine@Globe.com.

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