It can be a trying task, tracking the ever-evolving objections opponents generate about charter schools. But one constant over the years has been that charters cream the best students from district schools. That’s one big reason for their impressive educational results, charter foes contend. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had a charter opponent say or write, “They should have to take every kid who comes in the door, the way the districts schools do,” why, I’d establish a scholarship fund for pupils interested in studying the prose and cons of disingenuous argumentation.
Why disingenuous? Because Massachusetts charters are required by law to select their students through blind lottery. No matter, opponents argue, that still qualifies as creaming, since those who enter their children in a charter lottery are involved parents, which means the blind lottery itself amounts to taking the most motivated kids. Plus, the unsubstantiated accusation goes, charters systematically push out underperforming students.
Now, a few years back, the creaming/involved-parents argument ran aground on the reef of several excellent academic studies that controlled for that effect — and still found Boston-area charters gave their students an impressive boost. No matter. Time and tide have left that reef a distant memory; and so, its hull patched, that derelict old tramp steamer of an anti-charter argument is once again plying the public policy waters.
Still, in considering a proposed New Bedford charter school expansion, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley tried to broker a compromise responsive to the “they-should-take-all-students” objection. Under Riley’s plan, rather than filling its 450 new seats by lottery, the Alma del Mar charter expansion would serve kids from an assigned area of the city.
That is, do just what charter foes have long said charters should. Imagine my shock, then, when both the local teachers union and its parent, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, came out against Riley’s idea. I was as surprised as I always am when the sun rises in the east each morning.
Riley’s proposal, which entailed transferring an old, unused school building in need of renovation to the nonprofit charter school, had the support of New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, the New Bedford City Council, and the New Bedford School Committee. However, because it called for replacing the charter lottery with neighborhood enrollment, it needed legislative approval. The MTA and its legislative allies adopted a successful strategy of death by dithering and delay. Faced with that reality, Riley has abandoned the compromise deal in favor of a 594-seat, lottery-filled charter expansion.
So why does the MTA oppose a plan that addresses one of the most frequently cited charter concerns? MTA communications specialist Scott McLennan sent me a union statement in which one particularly amusing bit of, um, reasoning caught my eye.
“MTA Vice President Max Page said that if the Alma del Mar deal was approved, poorer districts across the state would be targets for similar proposals that transfer public funds and property to private charter operators who get to determine which students they enroll.”
That’s a minor masterpiece of mendacity. For starters, charters are public schools, overseen by, and answerable to, the state Board of Education. In this case, the Alma del Mar expansion would have gotten its students from an assigned city zone, as the New Bedford district schools do.
So: The MTA is justifying its opposition to a proposal that addresses the creaming concern by saying it . . . could lead to creaming in other districts. How? Although I asked several times, communications specialist McLennan provided no answer.
Now, we all know what this is actually about. Charters are not automatically unionized schools, and they offer significantly more learning time than the district schools and often get better educational results. That’s uncomfortable for a union that, in its current incarnation, is deeply resistant to competition, accountability, and change.
That truth, however, can’t be uttered outright. Thus the MTA is forced to resort to arguments so transparently silly they’d embarrass a high school freshman.
That, alas, is what we’ve come to expect from today’s MTA.