A Bay State Referendum on Charter Schools

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Boston’s charter-school students are learning twice as fast as their peers. Why vote against more charters?

Cambridge, Mass.

A half-dozen times in recent years I have participated in “book club night” at a local charter school—a not-for-credit event where seventh- and eighth-graders meet with adult volunteers to discuss a book we have all read in advance.

These nights are pretty much a charter proponent’s fantasy. The kids are wide-eyed and respectful. They not only have read the material, they are brimming with questions. Every one of them is black or Hispanic and lower-income—what is commonly referred to as “disadvantaged.” Except, they don’t appear disadvantaged.

These students have big plans for the future—including college. And why not? They are learning twice as fast as their peers in traditional schools, on average. According to a 2013 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Boston charter students “gain an additional 12 months in reading and 13 months in math per school year.” Remarkably, African-Americans in the city’s charters are progressing faster than white students at traditional public schools.

Such results have made Massachusetts ground zero for the national charter debate. Due to state laws limiting charter-school capacity, 32,000 kids—most of them poor minorities—languish on waiting lists. This year the state legislature tried to craft a compromise to ease the restrictions but failed. Now it’s up to voters: A referendum on the November ballot would authorize the state to open as many as 12 new charters each year, adding to the roughly 70 in operation now.

In one sense, the ballot measure, known as Question 2, has already proved a boon: Money is pouring in. Pro-charter groups and individuals, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have contributed more than $12 million to pass it, according to financial reports filed with the state. Local unions and the American Federation of Teachers have raised about $6.8 million to defeat it. By comparison, a ballot item to legalize pot has smoked out only $3 million.

Charters are public schools run by independent operators, unconstrained by union rules but subject to the same basic educational standards. Results vary, but studies, like one in 2011 by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, suggest that poor and minority students do particularly well in charters.Posting admission by lottery results at a charter school in Boston.

Massachusetts has been a front-runner in education since the 1830s, when Horace Mann set out to create a system of public schools. In a state that takes great pride in education, Question 2 has inflamed passions. Local Republicans, who want no part of this year’s presidential politics, are avidly in favor, with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker leading the charge. Democrats are painfully divided, as one might expect for an issue that, arguably, separates the interests of organized teachers from their students.

The Democratic state committee opposes Question 2. Seth Moulton,the freshman congressman in Massachusetts’ sixth district, is undecided. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who represents the fourth district, is against. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh supports enabling more charters but opposes Question 2, citing its budgetary impact and favoring a gradual approach.

Opponents point out that the state’s public schools, on average, consistently rank among the country’s best. True, but the “average” masks some severe underperformance, at urban schools in particular. The argument that charters cherry-pick the best students is a canard. Admission is by lottery, and charter students in urban areas retain their edge when compared against those (presumably equally as motivated) who applied but didn’t get in.

A more substantive concern is that when a student abandons a traditional public school, a pro rata share of funding is diverted from the district school to the charter. Massachusetts has a generous program to reimburse local districts but, over time, aid money goes down. “Since the majority will continue to be educated in mainstream schools we have to be sensitive to that,” says Paul Reville, the top education adviser to Deval Patrick, the former Democratic governor. But Mr. Reville, now at Harvard, adds that school districts also have a responsibility to consolidate if their populations shrink. He says, “We ought to be as vigilant about closing [failing] mainstream schools as we are about charters.”

Smaller districts can’t always consolidate: If you have only one math class and you lose 10% of your funding, you still need a math teacher. Much of the problem is one of will. In Boston, the student population has been flat or shrinking for years. City government has offset the diversion of money to charters by siphoning a greater share of general funds to education. This is less sensible than it might sound.

Boston public schools have 93,000 seats yet only about 54,000 students, according to a 2015 audit by McKinsey & Co. Along with that comes plummeting student-teacher ratios and bloated operational staffs. The real squeeze on public schools, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Boston Municipal Research Bureau, arises from the “struggle” to cut excess capacity.

Whatever happens with Question 2, most kids in Massachusetts will remain in traditional public schools. That is why the referendum gives priority to new charters in districts that are truly failing their students. Some Question 2 opponents argue suburban districts could lose control of their schools, but this is unlikely. Only 4% of the state’s public students attend charters, and high-performing suburbs would mostly be unaffected.

Paul Grogan, who runs the Boston Foundation, a philanthropy that contributes to charters and (in much greater amounts) to regular public schools, says charters fulfill a vital role as incubators of reform. Thanks to competitive pressures, public schools—famously resistant to change—at long last are lengthening the school day and giving principals more autonomy and budget discretion. Local districts that fail to respond, he suggests, deserve their fate: “The fundamental issue is should the money be chained to institutions or should it follow the children?”

Mr. Lowenstein’s most recent book is “America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve” (Penguin Press, 2015)

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