Metro

Adrian Walker

Adding charter schools is about opportunity, not just funding

Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell.

Andrea Campbell is a great success story for the Boston Public Schools: an up-by-her-bootstraps Boston Latin graduate who went on to Princeton and now the Boston City Council, where her district includes Dorchester and Mattapan.

Campbell attributes much of her success to the opportunities that her public education afforded her. Yet she is an enthusiastic supporter of Question 2, the ballot question that would lift the cap on charter schools in the state. She insists that there is no conflict between supporting the Boston Public Schools and supporting charter expansion.

“I represent a district that is predominantly people of color and the poorest in Boston and whose families are struggling on a daily basis to find a quality education for their families,” Campbell said Thursday. “These parents are desperate, and Question 2 is an alternative for them. It gives them an option.”

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Even more than Question 4, which would legalize recreational marijuana, the charter school question has emerged as the most contentious referendum on the ballot. It is fiercely opposed by much of the state’s Democratic establishment, which has taken its cue from the teachers unions that say it drains resources from traditional public schools.

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But to Campbell, who represents a district with a heavy concentration of underperforming schools, the budget argument is simplistic. Rejecting more charters won’t address the operational issues of the Boston Public Schools.

“We have a stagnant or dwindling school population with a [budget of] $1 billion,” she points out. “Then what is the problem?’’

School success, she says, is about “effective partnerships, whether principals have autonomy, extended school days, advanced work programs. And I believe we can be having all these conversations at the same time.”

The ballot question, which once was considered likely to pass, has become a cliffhanger. A new Boston Globe-Suffolk University poll shows voters deadlocked on the question less than two weeks before the election. The argument that charters drain resources away from “public schools’’ has clearly influenced suburban voters — even though charters are public schools.

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As far as I’m concerned, it’s unfortunate that a question of education policy has been reduced to a food fight over dollars. The argument that charters drain resources is largely specious. They have 3.9 percent of the state’s public school students and 3.9 percent of the state’s public school dollars. It is true that the state’s formula for reimbursing school districts has not been fully funded by state government but untrue that charters are sucking the resources out of your child’s classroom.

“This question has been studied to death, and it’s fundamentally not true,” Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday. “The vast majority of communities don't have charter schools and never will.”

Certainly there are legitimate concerns about charter schools. Some have beenaccused of overzealous discipline in the name of imposing standards. I also firmly believe charters have diversity issues in administration and staffing that they have been slow to acknowledge, let alone address. Charter school proponents have been far too prickly about criticism, including legitimate criticism.

But that doesn’t legitimize the anticharter scare campaign aimed squarely at suburban voters who will be the least affected by the outcome of the question. More than 60 percent of the state’s charters are in just 10 districts. If your town’s schools are good now, this won’t change that.

Opponents of the ballot question argue that the solution is to better fund all the public schools. But it’s simply not credible to tell parents whose kids are stuck in lousy Level 4 schools that rejecting this question will fix them. There are schools in Boston that have been terrible for as long as anyone can remember, and no one should be forced to attend them.

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Charters give choices to families who can’t afford to pay for private school or to simply move to Brookline. They deserve to have those choices.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.