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Charter school battle erodes middle ground

A charter school volunteer checked names of future students drawn from a list of hopefuls on lottery day in May.Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff/file/Globe Staff

Education reform has turned into such a bitter battleground, it’s easy to forget it was forged over a search for common ground: the best way to teach children and maximize their learning potential.

Instead, the policy debate has become so polarized that it often seems detached from the very people it is aimed at helping — parents trying to figure out the best path to a decent education for children with different needs and abilities.

Take the South End mother who recently wrote to state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain. With a son on the autism spectrum who attends a district elementary school and a daughter at a charter school, this mother has a foot in two camps that are typically cast as competing with each other.

But her message transcends the divisiveness of the current debate, which is all about raising the cap on charter school spending — a move that would in effect increase the number of available slots. “I think we should be working to improve public schools so they all can be great,” this mother wrote to Chang-Diaz, who co-chairs the Education Committee and is in the thick of the current fight to lift the cap.

Good luck to that hopeful mom and anyone else with a naive, can’t-we-all-get-along mindset. Today’s ed reform landscape is as toxic as every other political battleground. You’re either for charter school expansion — or with the teachers’ unions.


The goal of getting all schools to great has morphed into an all-out push to create more charter schools as the antidote to poorly performing district schools. If you challenge that assumption in any way, you’re likely to be vilified as a union apologist and lover of the mediocre-to-poor status quo.

To be sure, there’s a clear appetite for an escape route from bad public schools. The Pioneer Institute, which is strongly lobbying Beacon Hill to lift the cap on charter school spending, says that, in the state’s 17 lowest-performing school districts, there are over 10,000 students waiting for charter spots to open. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill that would allow charter spending to increase by 5 percent over five years. The Senate is slated to take up the issue this week.


Chang-Diaz says she sees both sides of the issue, but she has been pushing for conditions that are unpopular with charter proponents. Right now there’s a formula to compensate districts for the money they lose when students leave for charter schools. Under one proposal that Chang-Diaz favors, the charter cap would rise only if the Legislature fully funds the formula. Under a second proposal, a charter school could not apply for new seats if its students have a higher attrition rate than that of the overall district. Chang-Diaz wants to toughen the House language on that score.

Charter school proponents view any restrictions as obstacles to reform — a reflection of urban teachers’ unions’ desire to undermine efforts to increase charter school slots.

Chang-Diaz rejects that narrative. She insists she is simply weighing the desire to expand opportunity for kids on charter wait lists against the competing need for resources in the district schools. “There are things at stake on both sides,” she said.

The South End mother who wrote to Diaz agrees. When I spoke with her, she said the Beacon Hill debate over lifting the cap means little to her. “I just don’t think it fixes the problem,” she said. “Just lifting the cap is not going to make the schools that aren’t performing well perform better.” (I agreed not to use her name; she’s apprehensive about any fallout for her children.)


With all the focus on charter schools, she wonders, what about kids — like her son — who attend a district school by choice? Or what about those who return to district schools if a charter is not a good fit? That could be the end result for her family, given her son’s special needs. On paper, she said, the charter school is open to her son. In reality, its more rigid structure may not work for him.

This mother sees many good things happening at the district school her son now attends. And while she is happy with the charter school her daughter attends, it’s not perfect either.

She can see what others can’t — the children in the middle of this ideological minefield.

None of them should be forgotten.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.