Opinion

opinion | Robert O’Leary and Martha Walz

New charter schools would help close the achievement gap

Massachusetts has some of the best public schools in the nation, but persistent achievement gaps offer stark evidence that far too many students are not benefiting from them. The desire of families to gain entrance to Commonwealth charter schools demonstrates how strongly they want an alternative to their traditional district schools.

From its founding of America’s first public school, Massachusetts has been in the vanguard of public education, ensuring that children receive the education they need to thrive in their personal and professional lives. At key points in our history, we challenged ourselves to improve our schools so every child receives a high quality education. We have that opportunity again this year.

The state should build on the successes of its 2010 Achievement Gap Act, a law we authored and shepherded through the Legislature as cochairs of the Joint Committee on Education. The 2010 law took a dual track, strengthening the educational opportunities for students attending school in their local districts and offering more charter school options to families living in the lowest-performing school districts.

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The Achievement Gap Act passed with bipartisan support in the legislature and built on the success of our public schools since the 1993 education reform law. Despite overall gains from 1993 to 2010, stubborn achievement gaps persisted. Students from middle class and wealthy families outperformed students from low-income families, and white and Asian students outperformed black and Hispanic students. Significantly, charter schools often achieved better results with these underperforming students than their traditional district school counterparts. The 2010 law was intended to help close those gaps.

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In just a few years, the Achievement Gap Act’s impact has exceeded our expectations. Our legislative colleagues who voted in favor of the bill should be proud of what they set in motion. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has used its new powers to require changes in the state’s worst-performing schools, to place the Lawrence public schools in receivership and implement a district turnaround plan that has improved student outcomes and staff morale, and to require a similar strategy in Holyoke. The law has fostered the creation of new in-district charter schools and assisted school districts as they established more than 50 Innovation Schools.

More controversially, the Achievement Gap Act allowed the creation of additional charter schools. The demand has been so strong that thousands of students who wish to attend charter schools languish on waiting lists because a state-mandated cap on the number of students permitted to attend them in Boston and several other communities prevents their enrollment.

The 2010 law was the product of a hard-fought compromise. Last year, the state House of Representatives approved a compromise bill seeking to build on the success of the Achievement Gap Act, but the bill failed to garner sufficient support in the Senate. The Joint Committee on Education is again considering proposals to update the 2010 law, with a hearing on October 13.

We have an opportunity now, as we did in 2010, to empower even more school leaders to accelerate the pace of improvement and to address the growing demand for charter schools in the small number of communities where state law is preventing families from accessing the education they desire for their children.

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Let’s build on what works. In both 1993 and 2010, Massachusetts’ elected leaders, in bipartisan fashion, forged compromises that led to meaningful improvement in our schools, both traditional district and charter. We have a successful formula for how to move forward and challenge ourselves to continue Massachusetts’ leadership in public educational excellence.

Robert O’Leary was a state senator for the Cape and Islands from 2001 to 2010. Martha Walz was a state representative for Boston and Cambridge from 2005 to 2013.