When the campaign to create more charter schools kicked off with a State House rally last fall, black and Latino charter school parents gave emotional testimony about the importance of the schools to their families.
Political operatives at the rally agreed, saying that bringing high-quality education to urban areas is the civil rights issue of our time.
But when charter school opponents formally launched a campaign of their own on the State House steps two weeks ago, the first speaker was the president of the New England Area Council of the NAACP. Juan Cofield warned that charter schools are sapping resources from the traditional schools that serve most minority students, and creating a two-track system.
“As Brown vs. the Board of Education taught us,” he said, invoking the landmark school desegregation case, “a dual school system is inherently unequal.”
The high-stakes fight over lifting the state’s cap on charter schools has become highly racialized, making one of the most contentious political contests in Massachusetts’ recent history even more tense.
The debate has raised uncomfortable questions about charter school discipline of black children. It has left white liberals who oppose charter school growth in an awkward standoff with parents of color who support it. And it has put left-leaning politicians in a difficult spot.
“The hardest moments [in politics] are when it’s not clear what the right thing to do is, and this issue really pushes those buttons,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s education committee. “You have very sympathetic, righteous people — parents — on both sides, saying, ‘Look, I just need you to help me help my kid.’ ”
At issue is a proposed Massachusetts ballot question that would allow for the creation or expansion of 12 charter schools per year, with a preference for proposals in the lowest-performing districts. The measure, if approved by voters in November, would allow for significant additions to the state’s existing stock of 81 charter schools.
A small group of senators is trying to work out legislation that could appease both sides in the debate and keep the question off the November ballot — possibly pairing a modest charter expansion with changes in charter school law favored by critics.
The battle promises to be enormously divisive, with both sides pledging to spend millions if the issue goes to the ballot.
Mostly white business leaders and hedge fund executives are bankrolling the pro-charter campaign. The largely white teachers union leadership brings much of the anti-charter money to the table.
But minority communities may be most affected by the debate. Last year, 58 percent of Massachusetts charter school students were black and Latino, compared with 27 percent in schools statewide.
Even in Boston and cities like Lawrence and Lynn, charter schools serve larger proportions of minority students than traditional public schools. In some urban charter schools, more than 90 percent of students are black and Latino.
That sort of racial isolation has raised deep concern, in some parts of the country, about charter schools exacerbating segregation — especially because charters serving large minority populations are often among the lowest performing.
But that concern is muted in Massachusetts, which has some of the highest performing charter schools in the nation — including many serving black and Latino students. Some parents, in fact, say they feel more comfortable in academically rigorous, heavily minority schools than in schools with whiter student bodies.
Shaleea Vass-Bender, 38, an administrative assistant who grew up in Mattapan, attended suburban schools as a child through the state’s Metco program. In the fourth grade, she said, administrators suggested she take remedial classes — a move her parents resisted after independent testing showed she was performing above grade level.
When her own son got into Metco, Vass-Bender said, he tested above average but was told to attend summer school before classes began.
“I said, ‘No, I’m raising a little black boy and I know how hard he works, I know the preschool education that I gave him, and I know how much I’ve invested in him,’ ” she said. “ ‘I will not have him quickly tracked as being a student who needs extra help.’ ”
Vass-Bender chose, instead, to send her son to Edward Brooke Charter School in Mattapan, part of a network of three Boston charters serving mostly black and Latino students that have some of the highest test scores in the state.
The trouble, critics say, is charter schools like Edward Brooke are sapping committed parents, talented students, and millions of dollars in state funding from traditional public schools that serve the bulk of black and Latino students.
Charter operators counter that their schools are open to all, through a lottery system, and serve large numbers of students from low-income, single-parent homes.
And many of their most outspoken critics, they complain, are white activists from expensive Boston neighborhoods who have more high-quality schools at their disposal than the black and Latino parents filling up the charter school waiting lists.
Megan Wolf of Jamaica Plain, who belongs to a group called Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) that is a leading critic of charter schools, said her organization is sensitive to the fact that much of its membership is white.
But QUEST, she said, works closely with groups like the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, an advocacy group composed of teachers, administrators, parents, and students. And it is the people behind the pro-charter movement, she argued, who are disconnected from the on-the-ground reality.
“I think it is interesting that a lot of people who are leading the charter debate have no children in the Boston Public Schools at all and are white, privileged, and leading investment firms,” she said.
One of the most contentious issues is the discipline largely white charter school staffs mete out to mostly black and Latino students.
Marlena Rose, coordinator for the Boston Education Justice Alliance, raised the issue during the charter opponents’ State House rally, saying her own daughter had struggled at a charter school under “an unbearable discipline system that shamed and embarrassed her and her friends” with demerits for minor infractions.
“To this day, I feel like I placed my child in emotional harm’s way,” she said, “because she eventually shut down in the charter environment.”
Charter schools have some of the highest suspension rates in the state, with several suspending around 40 percent of their students for at least one day during the 2014-2015 school year. And activists say the suspensions can alienate students from school and send them spiraling — feeding what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
But while national research shows suspensions have deleterious effects, local charter school advocates say there is little evidence of systemic harm here. While Boston charters have a higher suspension rate than traditional public schools, they also have a higher “stability” rate. That means charter school students are more likely than traditional public school students to finish the year at the school where they started, rather than transferring or dropping out.
Jon Clark, network codirector for the Edward Brooke schools, said many charters use suspensions as one-day “timeouts” that help to build the safe, strong culture parents crave — signaling, particularly at the beginning of the year, that harassment and cheating are not allowed.
Clark said Edward Brooke students who are suspended at least once during the year are no more likely to withdraw from school than those who are not suspended, according to internal data.
But Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and author of a recent national study on discipline at charter schools, said more research is needed to verify Massachusetts charters’ claims that suspensions are not doing long-term damage.
“If they’re going to make assertions like that,” he said, “it counters everything we know” about the impact of suspensions nationwide.
This sort of debate, over the approach and effectiveness of charter schools, could go a long way toward determining whether more will be allowed in the state. Pro-expansion operatives say their polling shows that white, suburban voters believe, for now, that inner-city schools are struggling and view charter schools as a strong alternative.
Opponents say they can convince those voters that opening more charter schools means draining resources from the majority of black and brown students, who attend traditional public schools.
“Even if [charters] are doing better, it’s better for the few,” said Cofield, of the NAACP. “Society ought to be concerned about the many.”