The Great Charter Schools Debate
Do parents like charter schools? Charter proponents will always point to their impressive waitlists as proof that they do. Stutman, the teachers union head, and others, including State Auditor Suzanne Bump, question that data. Stutman points to the fact that BPS also has a sizable waitlist of kids trying to get into their first-choice district schools.
Many parents of color in Boston who spoke to me said that in the community, getting into a charter school is equivalent to winning the lottery. Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, a tireless BPS advocate and spokesperson for City Councilor Tito Jackson, says that he understands the charter appeal: “There were some really racist teachers [in Boston’s district schools]. That’s just what it was, and I think that it still is. When you talk to some parents—particularly black parents, because that’s really the population that is most affected and most attracted by charters—many of them say…‘I went to BPS during the era of busing, and my experience was horrible. And I love my kid and I don’t want them to go through that.’ And it’s just like, screw these guys. How dare an entire institution just fail an entire generation of kids.” Berents-Weeramuni, however, acknowledges that Boston Public Schools have improved dramatically since those days.
And yet, multiple sources on both sides of the issue have told me that Boston’s traditional schools work best for kids whose parents advocate for them. Advanced tracking, which begins in fourth grade, and exam schools serve the top students well. BPS’s best schools are in more-affluent neighborhoods; the parity from school to school that everyone dreams of still isn’t there.
Most charters, in contrast, are located in tougher neighborhoods and seem better equipped to serve poorer students. They’re run by sensible, independent-minded people who enjoy developing systems and tweaking those systems to improve them. These aren’t the kinds of people who relish working within systems set up by others; they’re entrepreneurial, data-driven, and flexible. And they want their students to succeed, too.
Boston’s charter schools have demonstrated that if you have the resources—teachers willing to work longer hours and more days for less pay, smaller class sizes, a well-financed infrastructure, administrative autonomy, and freedom from union rules—you can do a fine job of educating even the toughest populations.
Leaders of Boston’s traditional schools know all of this is true, but have less flexibility due to their centralized structure and union agreements. But they’re coming around. As of 2014, principals are now posting their own job openings, rather than the central office. Stutman, the teachers union president, tells me he’d consider extending the school day, but he’s hamstrung by bus scheduling issues. Right now, he’s girding for battle, raising money among his members to fight the proposed charter-cap increase. I wonder out loud whether that’s smart—won’t he always be outspent by the deep-pocketed charter proponents? Stutman isn’t intimidated.
Of course, teachers—the men and women who do the real work of educating kids—need protections, too. The union has negotiated excellent deals for its members, which often angers business leaders. But compensating professional educators fairly for their work is critical to creating a sustainable system. Boston’s charters experience much higher teacher attrition rates than the district, while charter-teacher salaries lag 28 percent behind the district. I wonder what good it is telling kids to go to college when their own teachers can’t afford to pay back their student loans.
In August, the Atlantic ran “Just Paying Teachers More Won’t Stop Them from Quitting,” a story funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that argued that the lack of classroom autonomy, community support, and appropriate training causes America’s high teacher turnover rate. That’s the charter school position. And yet, although charters claim to provide the kind of collaborative environment younger professionals seek, many of their hirees don’t stay long. Dominic Slowey, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Public School Association, explains that the high rate of charter teacher turnover isn’t about the money; it’s just that they tend to hire teachers in their twenties, an inherently unsettled demographic. But at BPS, teachers are staying. Maybe Boston is doing something right, after all.
In fact, Boston’s schools are not failing most kids. With all of its offerings—from charters to innovation schools, from pilots to exam schools—the city boasts a rich, inclusive educational landscape. That’s the best news we could hear, and it’s backed up by data. Boston’s schools, all of them together, earn the district top rankings among large cities across the nation.
What is failing us is the economy. In the aggregate, students’ test performance directly correlates to family income, and most Americans are getting poorer. Boston has the most pronounced income inequality in the nation—of the 57,000 children in the Boston Public School system, 78 percent are designated low income, and nearly half speak another language at home. Poverty among parents sometimes leads to drug use, neglect, or violence. These factors have profound effects on children’s ability to learn.
Do we want more charters in Boston? As long as the city continues to have struggling schools (11 are rated Level 4 or 5, with 5 meaning dire), the short answer is yes. Charters may have fallen down on innovation, but they do provide very good environments for at-risk learners. And the pressure they’ve put on the traditional system has yielded generally positive reforms. Still, growth needs to be regulated to mitigate systemic impact on the districts. Although it failed, this year’s excellent state Senate proposal for growth defined clearer guidelines, necessary to ensure that both districts and charters continue to thrive. We need that kind of oversight as we wander deeper into these waters.
But ultimately, how you feel about the rise of charters will be highly influenced by your politics. Do you like your services delivered straight up, or via independent operators? The charter school debate touches fundamental issues in our society: income disparity, unions, and private philanthropy in the public realm. These are elemental topics that Americans have grappled with for a couple of centuries, and right now in Boston, that drama is playing out in our public school system.