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Charter school results too good to ignore

Enticed by federal Race to the Top dollars, Massachusetts passed an important education reform law in 2010. But now, with that legislation in place, policymakers seem to lack the appetite for another round of significant change.

Take Governor Patrick, for example. He’s using the prospect of increased education spending to try to leverage a big tax hike, but hasn’t called for any important new reforms to the K-12 system. Nor has he displayed any interest in another charter school cap lift.

At the legislative level, the education reform movement has suffered a big loss with the departure of Marty Walz, the lightning-smart former House member who was the driving force behind the 2010 law. So far, no one in either chamber has shown a similar sense of urgency and determination.

On the city level, meanwhile, despite being thwarted in his two-year-plus effort to win a longer school day from the entrenched Boston Teachers Union, Boston Mayor Tom Menino doesn’t support raising the charter cap again. The only refreshing boldness we’re seeing there comes from City Councilor John Connolly, now a declared mayoral candidate, who backs both lifting the cap on charters and giving the traditional schools more autonomy, in part to bring about a longer school day.

In short, too many politicians have lapsed into a let’s-wait-awhile doze on education reform.


Now comes news that, in a rational policy-making world, would jolt them awake. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has just released a new study documenting the very real educational boost that Massachusetts charter schools, and particularly Boston charters, are giving their students.

That painstaking research concludes that students in Massachusetts charter schools gain an additional 1.5 months of learning in reading (a.k.a. English) and an added 2.5 months in math over their counterparts in the traditional public schools each year.

If the overall gains are eye-opening, the Boston results are eye-popping.

“Charter students in Boston gain an additional 12 months in reading and 13 months in math per school year compared to their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts,” the study concludes.


Those findings buttress the conclusion of a careful 2009 Harvard-MIT study that found that Boston charter schools were raising student performance well beyond that of the city’s traditional system.

“When you have something that is generating this much success, it borders on lunacy to continue to limit it,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation and one of the leaders of an effort to eliminate the charter cap in the lowest performing districts. “The only reason it is being limited is for political considerations.” That’s a polite way of saying that too many Democrats consider the teachers unions such important electoral allies that they are loath to offend them.

One can confidently predict that charter foes will dismiss the new research. Their usual rejoinder is this threadbare old standby: Charter school students do better not because of better schooling but because they have more involved parents, as evidenced by the fact that they entered their children in a charter school lottery in the first place.

In that light, it’s important to note that the new study went to great methodological lengths to evaluate student results in a way that isolates the impact of their schools. Further, the Harvard-MIT study, which compared students who won a slot in a charter lottery with students who entered such a lottery but weren’t chosen (and so stayed in a traditional public school), controlled for parental involvement.

The real reason charter students are showing big gains is obvious: They get significantly more school time. A 2010 research report concluded that the average Boston charter has an 8.2 hour day, while the average Boston traditional public school has only a 6.1 hour day. That means over the course of a regular school year, charter students are spending the equivalent of an extra 62 days in school. And that’s before you add in the longer school years that many charters have.


Let’s conclude by acknowledging two realities. One: This new study puts union-dependent Democratic politicians in a difficult position. Two: Those political difficulties notwithstanding, this state’s charter school results have become too compelling for policymakers truly concerned about education to ignore.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.