Opinion

opinion | Paul S. Grogan

Charter schools are not private schools

For reasons that defy logic, one fact continues to be lost in the debate about charter schools: Charter schools are public schools.

It is no small point to make, because virtually all other arguments against charter schools and the proposed raising of the charter cap in the Commonwealth arise from the pernicious and false notion that charter public schools are really private schools, and thus not open to those students and families who need the most care and attention in our K-12 education system.

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Disagreement on the role of charter schools is inevitable. But on a number of important issues, opponents of charter public schools in Massachusetts are simply wrong. They are wrong about charter public schools taking money away from district public schools. They are wrong about charter public schools padding performance numbers by cherry-picking “good” students from public schools and eschewing special-needs and English-language learner students. They are wrong about charter public schools not serving minority and poor students to as great a degree as traditional public schools. And they are wrong that the solution to underperforming district public schools lies exclusively in more funding.

First, charter public schools do not “siphon” funding from regular district schools. As public schools, charters are as legitimately entitled to public funding as any district school. It’s true that eventually money will follow students who leave district public schools, as it should, but few charter opponents mention that districts are reimbursed for years for students who have left for charters.

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Second, charter public schools in Massachusetts are not permitted to engage in selective admissions policies, aka “cherry-picking.” When enrollment requests surpass available seats, charter schools are required to hold attendance lotteries. And, because of their incredible success in educating low-income students and students of color, there is a wait list of 37,000 students throughout the Commonwealth.

A study released recently by MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative found that while charter public schools in Massachusetts once struggled with low enrollments for both special-education and ELL students, over the past five years or so charters have steadily increased those enrollments to the point of taking on such students at rates nearly equal to those of their district public counterparts. Additionally, the study determined that special-education and ELL students enrolled in charters perform better on math, English-language arts, science, and writing MCAS tests. Those students have also demonstrated positive gains in English proficiency, meeting Competency Determination, qualifying for the Adams Scholarship, and improving results in SAT and AP tests.

Third, the common claim that charter public school students in Boston have lower rates of college attendance and graduation than their Boston Public Schools district counterparts lacks context.

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The fact is that the six-year college graduation rate for all Boston charter public school graduates is just under 43 percent. For Boston Public Schools it is just under 50 percent. But remove the highly selective exam schools like Boston Latin from the equation and the six-year college graduation rate for BPS grads dips to 34.5 percent. The latter number is nothing to celebrate, no matter what side of the issue you’re on. Rather, it is something to fix.

To deny the academic success of Massachusetts’ charter public schools is disingenuous. If the ultimate goal in this debate is to provide the best learning options for grade-school children, then it is worth considering more charter public schools, and more rapidly adopting charter-like practices in district public schools.

The nation’s continuing failure to equip low-income minority students with the tools to succeed in American life is a national crisis. Charters in Massachusetts are getting astounding results with precisely those children. How can we not expand them?

Paul S. Grogan is president of The Boston Foundation.
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