A “yes” vote on Question 2 will expand educational opportunity for the disproportionately poor and minority children in our most challenged urban school districts and therefore accelerate the work we helped start when we wrote the Education Reform Act of 1993.
At that time, we knew that tens of thousands of Massachusetts students were being deprived of an adequate education, so much so that the Supreme Judicial Court was poised to rule that this failure violated the constitutional rights of Massachusetts children.
We’ve come a long way since then and have much to celebrate. Overall, students are doing better than ever, with Massachusetts ranked number one nationally in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores. But one seemingly intractable problem continues: The gap between the academic performance of more affluent students and those with fewer resources persists despite two decades and $3 billion in new state tax dollars invested in district schools.
This achievement or opportunity gap is large and ongoing. Massachusetts has the third largest achievement gap in the nation in terms of family income.
The good news is that we know real gains are possible; some urban schools are making tremendous progress. The bad news is that these successes are not as widespread as they ought to be.
A majority of students who attend traditional urban district schools are in schools ranked in the bottom 20 percent statewide. Most of these children are poor, black, or Latino, and often immigrants. More than two decades after education reform began, the underperformance of many district schools must be addressed aggressively. Too much time has passed, and too many children are still being left behind.
We included charter public schools in the 1993 law to provide poor parents with the type of educational choice that wealthy parents have always enjoyed. By keeping charter schools outside of school district bureaucracies and establishing a rigorous state-run application process, we hoped to spur innovation and ensure that more children had access to an excellent education.
We now have enough data to conclude that charter schools have exceeded expectations. In our cities, public charter schools consistently close achievement gaps. No wonder more than 32,000 children are on charter school waiting lists. Imagine being one of the parents crushed with disappointment when your child is not selected.
Massachusetts citizens invest a significant portion of their hard-earned tax dollars in the state’s most challenged and lowest-performing school districts. Despite enormous investments over many years, there has not been enough progress. Urban charter schools provide positive outcomes; it’s only natural that voters would choose to expand the number of schools that so effectively serve our most at-risk children.
Since leaving the Legislature, we’ve stayed engaged with the work of improving public education. We know how hard that work is. Many school districts struggle to find new ways to reach the children who fall between the cracks.
But how long are we willing to wait for school districts to deliver on their promise of a first-rate education for all children? It has already been decades. While we wait, generation after generation of children leave some of our schools ill prepared for the workplace or for college. Taxpayers have invested billions, but disparities within districts and across the state are still too wide.
We believe in expanding opportunity, especially for those living in poverty. A good school changes lives. In education, there are no silver bullets, but the success of so many of our urban charter schools compels us to support their expansion for the children who need them most.
Charter schools are flourishing in our cities. Voters shouldn’t block access to great charter schools for parents who desperately seek an alternative to what their district offers. Preventing more charter schools from opening often consigns poor children to poor education. No one should do that to someone else’s child.
Thomas Birmingham, former president of the Massachusetts Senate, is a senior fellow in education at the Pioneer Institute. Mark Roosevelt, former House chairman of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education, is president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.