Menino Charters the Way Forward

The Mayor called for lifting the cap on in-district charter schools

Tom Menino delivered his 20th State of the City Address last night in Faneuil Hall and, for all the hoopla over how good he looked post-hospital (the takeaway of the speech is probably best paraphrased by Ahnold) what he had to say on education jumped out at me—specifically, his call for eliminating the cap on in-district charter schools.

There are currently six in-district charter schools in the system—essentially, they're hybrid models where union teachers are used (unlike at normal charter schools) but the work rules are more flexible (unlike at normal BPS schools). Whereas normal charter schools answer to the state, the in-district ones answer to the city's school committee. So far, in Boston, they've been installed in already existing, low performing schools to great success. And while this is not the first time Menino has raised the issue, it remains highly notable that he advocated for it in such a big setting. As recently as 2009, the mayor opposed any form of charter school altogether.

Here's what he said last night:

Our most important collection of talent lies in our young people. So our first task is improving public education in our city. Our 2010 reforms created turnaround schools, launched in-district charter schools, overhauled teacher evaluation, and won new resources for our classrooms. The best way to celebrate those accomplishments is not with applause, but with an encore.

I am fighting to gain the power to extend freedoms in hiring and learning time to many more schools across the district. If a school has to fail before it gets flexibility, it’s not just the school that is failing, it’s us!

I am also proposing to eliminate the cap on in-district charter schools, like UP Academy. They took over the Gavin School in South Boston, taught the same kids and had great success. UP had the highest growth in math of any middle school in the state.

It's interesting to look at the apparent motivations behind Menino's 2009 flip on charters. From a 2009 story by the Globe's Michael Levenson:

The plans represented a sudden shift after 16 years in which the mayor has argued that the funding formula for charters is unfair. For each student who attends a charter school, a portion of state aid gets redirected from the city school system to the charter school.

Menino said his ideas were motivated in part by President Obama's declaration that he is making available $5 billion in grant money to cities that are seeking to revive low-performing schools. Obama has also warned that mayors who limit new charter schools could be penalized in receiving discretionary federal aid.

In 2009, it was possible to argue that Menino was making the shift as a money grab. Why wouldn't he do everything he could in the middle of a recession to get every dollar possible for the city's kids? Now, though, it's pretty clear that he's a true believer. It's especially significant —as I detailed a couple years ago in this story on the charter school Roxbury Prep—since, as recently as the 1990s, Boston was the epicenter of charter school activity and thought. The city and state's restrictive charter policies eventually pushed all of the brightest educational innovators down to New York, where Michael Bloomberg welcomed them with open arms and policies encouraging a wide proliferation of charter schools. In 2010, Massachusetts finally lifted the cap on charter schools for the first time in 17 years, and some of that activity came back. The last three years have seen a charter boomlet, and though Boston may never be the hub of the movement again, as it was a couple decades ago, we do seem to be moving back in that direction. A group of legislators recently filed a bill in the State House to remove the cap on charter schools altogether. That Menino, a longtime charter foe, vocally supported an unlimited number of in-district ones is another big step forward.