Why Wouldn’t Boston Want More Charter Schools?

A look at the MCAS data resoundingly supports more charter schools, but, it's not that simple.

There’s news today in the Globe that a group of advocates is pushing the state to abolish its limit on charter schools. The impetus is a study out of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which found that 83 percent of charter schools in Boston perform significantly better than the district’s public schools. The remaining 17 percent of Boston charter schools, the study determined, don’t do any worse than their BPS counterparts. All in all, the researchers found that it’s as though kids in Boston charter schools are getting an extra one-and-a-half months of instruction per year in reading and two-and-a-half months per year in math.

That’s really good! In fact, while charter schools face mixed results across the country, in Massachusetts, they’ve always been exceptionally strong. I dug into the reasons in a story a few years ago on Roxbury Prep, one of the more successful charters in the state. My story also got into the reasons that Massachusetts, once the country’s leader in educational innovation, piddled away its lead on charter schools by refusing for years to lift the cap on the number of them allowed. Finally, in 2010, in a bid to win a Race to the Top grant from the Obama Administration, the state passed a law that would raise the number of students allowed in charter schools in the state’s lowest performing districts—like Boston—to increase from 9 to 18 percent. Now some would like the cap to go away all together.

“To put it bluntly, the charter sector here is the highest quality that we have seen in any of the 29 states or any of the cities that we have looked at,” the Globe reported ­that Edward Cremata, coauthor of the report, told a statehouse committee. Just to drive home the point, here are some numbers comparing the BPS average MCAS scores for 8th graders to those at a handful of charter schools:

Grade 8: English Language Arts, percent scoring advanced or proficient

BPS average: 63

Roxbury Prep Charter School: 86

Edward Brooke Charter School: 100

Excel Academy Charter School: 100

State average: 81

Grade 8: Math, percent scoring advanced or proficient

BPS average: 35

Roxbury Prep Charter School: 80

Edward Brooke Charter School: 82

Excel Academy Charter School: 96

State average: 52

Grade 8: Science, percent scoring advanced or proficient

BPS average: 15

Roxbury Prep Charter School: 31

Edward Brooke Charter School: 46

Excel Academy Charter School: 80

State average: 43

That’s just a small slice of scores from a small sample of schools, but the point is that charter schools in Boston don’t make a small difference. They make a BIG difference. Freed from union constraints, the schools are allowed longer school days and more flexibility in teacher hiring and firing. The result: You’ve got kids from Roxbury, Mattapan, and East Boston outperforming kids from Newton and Brookline on the MCAS. So why not lift the cap? Because it has to do with the power of the teachers unions and the city of Boston’s desire to keep its schools under its control. Mayor Menino has been advocating so-called “in-district” charters, which come with more flexible rules for teachers, but, unlike normal charters, stay under the auspices of his school committee.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the mayor’s race. While schools will be a key issue, some candidates may fear alienating teachers and other unions. Already, candidate Marty Walsh was out in the Globe this morning saying that he supports lifting the cap. Who else will follow him?

There’s no doubt that charter schools aren’t perfect. In the past, they typically haven’t enrolled as many non-English speaking and special needs students. And we know that parents who go out of their way to enter their children in the charter school lottery are already more invested in their kids’ education, providing a crucial leg up. But the numbers are hard to argue with. The bottom line is that charter schools work in Boston. Why on earth wouldn’t we want more of them?