IT MAY SEEM like a strange recommendation: Ignorance as an aid to thoughtful analysis.
But as you contemplate Question 2, which would allow a dozen more charter schools each year in Massachusetts regardless of current caps, try donning a veil of ignorance for a minute or two.
Specifically, John Rawls’s veil of ignorance. Rawls, one of the most significant philosophers of the 20th century, said that when contemplating principles for a just society, we should ask ourselves what arrangement we’d favor if we didn’t know our class position, social status, or place in society. That way, we’re far more likely to look beyond narrow self-interest and focus on broader questions of fairness and justice.
So how does that apply to Question 2? Well, even if your own children are in a high-performing suburban school, your Rawls-test reasoning might well run this way: What if my kids were stuck in a poorly performing urban school? And faced with that thought, you’d probably conclude that urban school children — possibly your kids, in this thought experiment — deserve more and better educational options.
Make no mistake, charters provide those options for urban kids. Take it from MIT economics professor Parag A. Pathak, one of the founders of MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative. Back in 2008-2009, Pathak co-led the Harvard-MIT research team that evaluated how Boston students who won a charter slot performed compared with kids who had applied but had not gotten a spot. Pathak did a double take at the results; he hadn’t previously believed gains that large were possible.
“It was the single most impressive educational intervention that I had ever seen studied,” Pathak says. “They were making enormous progress on closing the black-white achievement gap.”
That effectiveness has now been verified by a number of different analyses. Furthermore, MIT’s other research shows that the charter effect is not driven by self-selection or somehow forcing students out, that charter gains are biggest for kids who start with the lowest baseline test scores, and that charters also boost the achievement of special needs students and English Language Learners.
So the case for charters as a way to help urban students is crystal clear. And now, let’s lift Rawls’s veil and get some good news: If you do live in the suburbs, it’s highly unlikely that Question 2 will change anything in your district.
In most cities and towns, charter operators could apply to start a school now if they wanted. After all, only a handful of large communities have either reached their cap or are close enough that they only have room for one additional charter: Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield. A few small communities — places like Edgartown, Hancock, Pelham, Petersham, Provincetown, Rowe, Savoy, Westhampton, Whately, Williamsburg, and Worthington — also fall into that category, but principally because, in tiny towns, it doesn’t take many charter students to be at or near the local cap.
Since the turn of the century, however, only two charters have been approved for suburban communities; the last time a new charter opened in a suburb was in 2007, when the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School came to Hadley. That hardly reflects a charter-school movement intent on trying to charter-ize suburban districts.
Charter opponents won’t tell you that, because the campaign against Question 2 is largely based on creating misplaced fears among suburban voters. If you are one, don’t be fooled. Question 2 won’t hurt your kids. So keep your eye on the real issue here: the plight of children who, unlike yours, are stuck in lousy schools.
Think what you’d want for them if they were your kids.
And cast your vote that way.