The Great Charter Schools Debate

With charter school legislation on the ballot this year, the fight between the pro-charter and anti-charter faithful is reaching a fever pitch. Here’s what you need to know.

The original proponents of Massachusetts’ charters were of two minds. One group imagined charters as innovation labs where pedagogical and administrative ideas could be tested, with best practices then being folded back into the traditional system. Others envisioned a parallel educational system that would pressure districts to clean up their acts. Both were curious about what would happen if you tried to educate the same population unfettered by union and district rules.

From 10,000 feet, traditional school systems can look like monopolistic bureaucracies too slow to adapt to changing times and changing economies. That’s often code for: It’s the unions, dummy. Charter supporters argue that unions hurt schools because they’re unwilling to purge ineffective teachers or pay educators according to performance rather than seniority. They note that historically, unions are loath to subject members to outside scrutiny or students to the rigors of standardized testing. (Indeed, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni wants to chuck all such tests, including MCAS, which she claims distracts teachers from the real work of educating children.)

But from his utilitarian Dorchester office down the street from the Globe, Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman tries to refute much of the conventional wisdom. Stutman is deeply Boston, a West Roxbury native with thick, graying hair. He sits in a squeaky chair in an office jam-packed with mementos of past negotiations, children’s art, slogans, and boxes of brightly colored T-shirts. It looks like he’s been here a long time.

The union, he says, does allow Boston Public Schools to purge teachers if they underperform. “People who are evaluated who get an unsatisfactory rating are quickly slated for termination in as little as 30 days,” he says. “People can get up to a year or two, but they can’t stay there. They either get better or they become unsatisfactory. You can’t stay in limbo.” Teacher evaluations bear that out. A statewide report shows that 76 percent of BPS teachers are rated proficient, and 20 percent are rated exemplary. That’s better than many of the state’s best-performing school districts, such as Newton, where only 0.5 percent of teachers were rated exemplary. And it puts Boston right on par with Weston, one of the state’s top school districts. Rest assured, BPS is positively brimming with talent.

I try to imagine Stutman doing battle with Boston School Committee chair Michael O’Neill, refusing to back down on some pension or salary issue. After all, Stutman is the guy who represents all the reasons people say public education is “in crisis” or “failing.” But he makes sense. He looks like every high school principal in Boston—the one who’s always been there, knows everyone’s name, and remembers your older brother because he taught him, too. Stutman knows his schools, knows his kids, and knows his constituents. He’s not the Gargamel of education that some would like me to believe.


When he was developing the 1993 act, Paul Reville wasn’t sure how charters would ultimately get integrated into the public school system. At the time, he was founding executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and under Weld served on the state Board of Education. Twenty-three years later and after a stint as Governor Deval Patrick’s secretary of education, Reville, in his heavily air-conditioned, book-lined sanctuary at Harvard’s Longfellow Hall, seems mildly disappointed that few pedagogical innovations have emerged from the charter experiment. “Charter schools have regressed in pedagogy. We haven’t found anything new,” he says. “That they would serve as labs was a naive assumption.”

“That is a job we have really fallen down on,” agrees state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, one of the legislators charged this year with creating a bill to introduce a few more charters while further regulating them. “I think it’s because of inattention—we haven’t worked to [encourage collaboration]. People are trying to run schools every day, and there’s a vague sense that the DESE should be responsible for dissemination of best practices, but there aren’t mechanisms for the state to explore collaboration.” Although the state Senate passed legislation earlier this year that seemed to address the latest anti-charter concerns while raising the cap, it was pronounced dead by Senate President Stan Rosenberg in June. Then again, no one thought it would pass, given that the House and Governor Baker are strongly pro-charter and preferred that the question go straight to referendum, thereby avoiding increased regulation.

The charter experiment has proven that there’s no magic bullet when it comes to educating kids—you just need time, money, and dedication. Charters have that in spades. They’ve also provided their teachers a more nimble and collaborative work environment in which performance can be rewarded with bonuses and salary bumps. But the pressure charters put on traditional schools will probably always ruffle feathers. Here in Boston, the two systems—traditional public schools run by the Boston School Committee and staffed by licensed union teachers; and charters run by independent operators that can be staffed by unlicensed college grads—maintain a prickly distance. In a few instances, they swap ideas. For the most part, though, tempers flare every budget season, especially when the specter of a charter-cap lift appears, as it does this year. Jon Clark, of Brooke Charter Schools, tells me he recently sent a group of his teachers to look at a district school, and they were promptly asked to leave. Collaboration isn’t a hallmark of Boston’s multitiered system. You stumble onto turf wars everywhere.

Money has become the most obvious sticking point for supporters of traditional schools. Children who opt for charter schools in Boston take funding with them for their charter tuition, and that money comes straight from their district’s school system. Boston Public Schools, for example, sends $14,000 of its budget to charters per student. Additional charter financing comes from the state, from private philanthropy, and from investors in the form of bonds. It seems that there’s a large, wealthy constituency in Massachusetts eager to support the cause.

Although BPS has received partial reimbursement from the city and state to offset its payments to charters, it still can’t meet its budget and has cut teachers and services, a move that infuriates BPS parents. Those I met with have encyclopedic knowledge of how schools are run and funded. They don’t think it’s fair that charters take money from districts that are already running in the red.

The most damning criticism from anti-charter legislators and parents, including Mary Lewis Pierce (a.k.a. Public School Mama), is that charters don’t educate all children, just the ones who will keep the schools’ MCAS averages up. They say that the ELL, ESL, and special-education students—who are more expensive to educate—are sent back into district schools because they can’t keep up. They recount stories of kids in charters being told they “wouldn’t be happy” if they stayed. So they left.

That assertion may have been true at one point, but legislation passed in 2010 seems to have addressed the issue, and current enrollment shows a tremendous change in Boston’s charter population. In fact, the city’s charters now seem to be serving just as many impoverished and minority kids and almost as many ELLs and special-education students as district schools do, and their attrition rates are lower.

BPS’s budgetary woes draw scant sympathy from charter proponents, who say the public schools’ inability to adapt is proof that the traditional system is inefficient. They insist BPS must change or perish—administrative costs are too high; the system offers too many special programs; it’s too rigid and centralized. Maybe some schools should be closed. They also say that teachers should be paid less. A 2011 study by the Boston Foundation and Boston Municipal Research Bureau came right out and stated that BPS teachers get paid too much, arguing that their compensation should be tied to performance rather than length of employment.

It’s easy for charter supporters to dismiss BPS’s budget problems. After all, charters are the current darlings of philanthropists—they have no trouble raising money when they need to. Further, each charter school sets its own budget, unhindered by union and district rules. From the charter administrator’s perspective, all it takes to balance books is discipline.