Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

The charter school bargain

Marco Melgrati for The Boston Globe

Boston Public Schools students returned to class on Thursday. But not Boston’s public charter school kids; they’ve been back in class since mid-to-late August.

And even if you don’t count charters’ earlier start dates, their students, because of their longer days, will get about two more months of school time over the course of the 2016-2017 year than their counterparts in the BPS’s traditional schools.

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Is it any wonder, then, that Boston charter school students regularly outperform their traditional public-school peers?

You won’t, of course, hear any of that from the teachers unions and their allies as they try to defeat a ballot question to lift the cap on charter schools.

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In the private sector, an enterprise usually responds to competition by striving to improve its own product. BPS should do just that, urges Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, who says the next contract with the Boston Teachers Union should be a reform agreement that adds more learning time for all BPS students, ties teacher pay increases to performance, strengthens the teacher evaluation process, and values ability over seniority when schools cut teachers.

Since BPS teachers already earn some of the highest public pedagogical pay in the state — an average of $90,891 in fiscal year 2017 — while working a relatively short school day, there really should be room to expand learning time at a more affordable price than last time around, Tyler says. In late 2015, Mayor Marty Walsh got the union to agree to an extra 40 minutes a day at some schools at a cost of $4,465 per teacher. That has been implemented at 18 BPS traditional schools, but plans to add more schools have been shelved until the 2017-2018 school year. The cost for 50 such schools will be an additional $12.5 million per year.

That cost alone should emphasize what a bargain charter schools are. They, after all, deliver their longer days and years for the same per pupil expenditure that buys only a shorter day and year in the traditional schools.

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That’s something to keep in mind when you hear the anti-charter forces proclaim, endlessly, that charters “drain” $400 million from the traditional public schools.

It’s also important to realize that that supposedly drained money is for educating students who have left the traditional schools for charters.

Further, look skeptically upon the suggestion that the traditional public schools have suffered significant budget cuts because of charters.

Boston is far and away the city with the most charters in the state. Yet as the research bureau noted in a spring report, BPS funding has increased by 24 percent since 2011. And consider the 12 urban districts with the most charters, including Boston, with the most charter school students. In those districts, per pupil spending, excluding charter schools, averaged 29 percent higher in 2015 than in 2005, according to state education data. Net state education aid, excluding charter school reimbursements, was up by 30 percent over the same period.

That hardly constitutes a funding calamity.

The charter wars are best thought of as a battle about disruption. Charters create competition, which puts unwelcome pressure on traditional schools to change. And, in some cases, on districts to close or consolidate under-utilized schools and to lay off some teachers unable to find new posts. Thus the vehement opposition from the unions whose teachers staff those schools.

In a state that leans Democrat and liberal, charter foes would like to frame the charter issue as a left-versus-right, liberal-versus-conservative battle.

Charter public schools have hardly been a fiscal calamity for traditional public schools.

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Problem: Hillary Clinton is a charter school supporter.

So is President Obama.

In fact, let’s end with a word from Arne Duncan, President Obama’s long-serving former secretary of education.

“Far too often, the chief beneficiaries of high-performing charter schools — low-income families and children — are forgotten amid controversies over funding and the hiring of nonunion teachers in charter schools,” he wrote recently in The Atlantic. “Too often, the parents and children who are desperately seeking better schools are an afterthought.”

Let’s not let that happen here.

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