The Great Charter Schools Debate

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charter schools

Photograph by Toan Trinh

This fall, it’s going to get ugly in Massachusetts. We’re prepping for a projected $30 million public fight with all the attendant invective and hyperbole, so keep the kids away from the TV. That’s what I hear again and again as I travel from the State House to Roslindale schools, from noodle shops in Jamaica Plain to downtown nonprofits, Brighton coffee shops, Harvard professors’ offices, and drab union halls in Dorchester. The proverbial poo’s gonna fly, people warn me. And none of this has anything to do with Trump’s comb-over.

In November, Massachusetts voters will decide whether the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) can raise the cap on the number of charter schools allowed, or increase enrollment in existing charters in underperforming districts. If the referendum is approved, the city of Boston—which currently has 27 Commonwealth charter schools that operate independently of the district and educate about 14 percent of the student population—will likely see an increase in charters over the next several years. It’s an advance that charter advocates firmly champion but opponents see as another little push in the direction of a very steep cliff.

How did public education get so contentious, even as Boston’s public school system is near the top on every available scoring index of the nation’s major urban districts? Why does Brooke Charter Schools founder Jon Clark, a quiet, straight-talking guy from Wellesley, become slightly unhinged when I share some of the views of the anti-charter folks? What is it about this debate that brings out the tinfoil-hatted paranoia in all of us?

Ideologically speaking, charter schools—which are publicly funded but operate outside of typical district and teachers union rules—are the muddiest of all political issues, simultaneously supported by neoliberals and ultraconservatives, progressives and regressives, hedge funders and immigrants. For those who favor them, charters represent our best hope for improving education. In fact, the pro-charter movement is predicated on the certainty that public education is in crisis, and it lays the blame squarely on government incompetence and union hegemony. Well-run charters, they argue, not only educate children more cheaply, but also more effectively. The data back that up: The average SAT composite score in Boston’s charter high schools in 2015 was 100 points higher (about 10 percentile points) than the district schools’.

Opponents argue that charters are simply a huge, costly distraction from the challenges public education faces, beginning with limited resources. Even if you improve charters, they say, you still need a systematic plan to address the needs of all children, the majority of whom attend regular public schools.

Of course, what makes this debate even thornier is that ultimately it’s not just about educating children. It’s about the role of government and organized labor, and about your faith in data in the classroom. It’s also about how much money you think your kid’s teacher should earn.

Pro- and anti-charter people have been through this all before—they know each other’s talking points and can often pinpoint exactly where a statement, statistic, or argument came from. You’ll hear a lot of well-meaning crap on both sides, as well as plenty of thoughtful analysis based on outdated information. In any event, the sides are strapped in and ready for battle over the soul of public education in Boston.


Charter schools are the biggest social experiment of our time, championed by some of the nation’s wealthiest businesspeople, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Walton family, of Walmart. Sure, these folks get tax breaks, but they also get something more: the satisfaction that they’re changing the world. Their money is here in Massachusetts, funding advocacy and legislators and boosting pro-charter nonprofits and programs.

Massachusetts’ dance with charters, however, started not with an infusion of Walmart cash, but with a lawsuit filed by a group of students in 1978 arguing that funding inequities had denied them a proper education, a violation of the state’s constitution. At the time, school district budgets were at the mercy of local property tax revenues: Wealthy communities had good schools, and poorer communities made do. Inequality was baked into the equation.

Proposition 2½, the 1980 referendum limiting increases in property taxes to no more than 2.5 percent each year, further crippled each town’s ability to raise money for schools. Some communities, such as Newton and Brookline, have overridden that measure to finance their schools. Others wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. By the 1990s, the disparity in educational quality and infrastructure was pronounced. The 1978 case was finally settled in 1993 in favor of the plaintiffs.

The resulting 1993 Education Reform Act, under former Governor William Weld, decreed that the state subsidize districts as necessary so that all towns and cities could achieve foundation budget spending, a dollar amount calculated using a set formula. (These days, wealthier districts often exceed foundation spending.) The legislation also introduced statewide standardized testing (MCAS) and other structural changes to jump-start reform, especially in Boston, where racism, busing, and white flight had ravaged the school system.

Weld had another agenda item: vouchers. Popular among conservative leaders at the time, vouchers were based on the idea that education money should follow the child. If you opted out of the public school system, you could use your tax dollars to pay for tuition elsewhere. The idea proved too controversial for Massachusetts, but charters emerged as a compromise.

Since 1993, smart legislation has helped maintain high standards for charters in Massachusetts while keeping out the predatory for-profit charter operators that plague other states. From the outset, Massachusetts limited the number of charters it would authorize. In 2000, after contentious debate, the state agreed to raise the cap to 120, including district-run charters. Today there are 81 operating charter schools in Massachusetts—but Boston has hit the maximum allowed under the current district cap. If the referendum passes, it would permit up to 12 new charter schools to open in the state per year, or increase enrollment in existing schools. That’s the decision we’ll have to make at the polls in November.


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.


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.



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