A voter is deeply conflicted over the ballot question to expand charter schools in Massachusetts. Paging the Edulosopher…
A few years ago my family moved from New York City to Massachusetts. Before we made the move, we thought we’d be moving to Jamaica Plain, but we also looked at Brookline. Fear of the Boston Public Schools lottery system (among other things) led us to choose Brookline, even though the rent was going to be higher. We wanted to make sure that our daughter got the best public education we could afford. And that’s the issue that the upcoming charter school vote has created for me. Until a month ago, I thought I was going to vote no on lifting the cap on charter schools. I’m pro-union and believe strongly in public schools. I’ve long worried that charter schools could end up creating even worse public schools in communities with already struggling schools, because motivated parents would move their children into the better schools, leaving the weakest students behind in weaker schools. What I was blind to, shamefully, was that my family had made precisely that same choice by moving to Brookline. Shouldn’t families in communities with failing schools have the same option that I had, to move their children to better schools? I’m voting yes on expanding charter schools, but I remain troubled by the issues in play. I think that charters do hurt the overall system, but I cannot claim that poorer families than my own should not get the same option we had, and yet I fear that the growth of charters will let some policymakers think they are off the hook when it comes to making better schools for all. So, what’s the right way to deal with charters?
All Turned Around
Dear All Turned Around:
Parsing the debate surrounding charter schools is no simple task. As your question illustrates, the issue of charters moves quickly into choice, access to quality schools, what makes a school a good school, what makes a district a good district, teacher unions, and what makes a public school public, among other things. The thing is, I think most of these concerns are only indirectly related to making a decision about Question 2. Do not get me wrong. Asking how we ought to deal with charters writ large is a question we should be talking about, but it is an enormous question. And it is really hard not to see Question 2 as a referendum on charter schools—so much of the rhetoric in this debate positions the ballot question precisely in these terms—but that understanding misrepresents what is at stake.
This ballot question is not about whether charter schools are, in principle, a good or bad thing. It will neither eliminate the 81 charter schools across Massachusetts nor limit the expansion of charter schools to the currently 120 schools the cap allows (although there is also a funding cap that does constrain expansion). These schools will continue to exist and do the work that they do. What the ballot question will do is make it possible for up to twelve Commonwealth charter schools to be opened each year, indefinitely. Interestingly, the bill specifically designates that the twelve additional charter schools will be Commonwealth charters, which operate independently from school districts, as opposed to Horace Mann charters, which operate under the oversight of local school committees. Voters thus need to decide if adding twelve new Commonwealth charters per year, indefinitely, is the best thing for Massachusetts children and schools.
Voters thus need to decide if adding twelve new Commonwealth charters per year, indefinitely, is the best thing for Massachusetts children and schools. Let me explain why I am skeptical that it is.
Let me explain why I am skeptical that it is. I am a big fan of careful thinking and careful planning. I worry that sometimes this makes me more of a gradualist than anything else, but I take there to be great virtue in making sure we (planners, citizens, etc.) get things as right as we can when we have the opportunity to act. In this case, I just do not see how Question 2 amounts to any sort of careful planning or to getting things as right as we can.
Here are couple of reasons why. First, Question 2 does not address school funding even as it will likely increase the overall funds needed to sustain public schools in Boston (and elsewhere). As Gov. Baker has declared, the ballot question will not change the current school funding formula (see page 6 of the linked document). This means that funding for Commonwealth charter schools comes out of the state aid Boston (and every other school district) receives each year. As charter proponents note, because they consider charter schools to be public schools, we should not view this diversion of funds as a loss for public schools; rather, it is simply redirecting funds between public schools. But what this logic does not take into account is the cost this exerts on Boston writ large. Boston has had to devote more of the city’s budget to cover the growing costs of the Boston Public Schools, leading Mayor Walsh to claim that the expansion of charter schools without subsequent increases in state aid would *wreak havoc on our municipal finances.* The impact of this bill, then, would be felt not only on resources for schools, but also on Boston’s entire municipal budget. Given the way schools are currently funded, the city will be stuck trying to hold together the budget, often at the expense of other needed reforms and/or basic funding in other areas.
Second, Question 2 has the effect of pitting groups who share common goals against each other. Sitting in the audience listening to a debate over Question 2 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education the other night, I heard people on both sides of the issue agree they want better schools and that more money is needed to achieve that end. But it was also clear that if we opt to expand the number of Commonwealth charters in Boston, more of the city’s state aid for education will be earmarked for charters, increasing the gap between the funds BPS receives and what it needs. This leaves Bostonians with a few unpleasant options: 1) continue to rely on the city to cover the gap, even though that requires more money to be pulled from other important city services; 2) fail to make up the gap and leave dedicated educators to squabble over limited resources (and who are we kidding, this burden will fall on district educators); or 3) close district schools and make other hard budget choices (harder than, say, what schools are already forced to consider).
Mayor Walsh’s analysis covers the problems of the first option (rely on the city to cover the lack of funds) pretty well, I think. The second option (require BPS to deal with the shortfall) undermines the idea that charter schools can be partners to district schools by making partners into competitors or, worse, adversaries. Charters, as we often hear, were originally established as laboratories of innovation, which could try out strategies that would improve all schools. But this partnership has not been as effective as those who first embraced charters likely hoped. Charters rely on practices (for example, limited admission points or largely inflexible behavioral and academic standards) that are suited solely for charter schools, limiting the transfer of those practices to district schools (BPS and the Boston Teachers Union did adopt extended day last year). Increasing financial stress would, I think, only further rupture this already tenuous relationship and push charters further from being district school partners and toward being district school replacements.
I also have doubts if replacing district schools with charter schools will ultimately address what people on both sides of the Question 2 debate care deeply about, namely, separate and unequal systems of schools. The movement to replace traditional schools with charters is geographically limited to urban areas with high populations of students of color. Nobody (at least that I know of) is seriously talking about supplementing Lincoln-Sudbury or Lexington High School with a charter school.
I also have doubts if replacing district schools with charter schools will ultimately address what people on both sides of the Question 2 debate care deeply about, namely, separate and unequal systems of schools. The movement to replace traditional schools with charters is geographically limited to urban areas with high populations of students of color. Nobody (at least that I know of) is seriously talking about supplementing Lincoln-Sudbury or Lexington High School with a charter school. The end result, if things continue as they are, would be different schools for different groups of people that track disturbingly along lines of race, class, and geography. I just do not see how replacing traditional schools with charter schools while leaving in place residential segregation and its attendant socioeconomic inequalities will do much to mitigate either the separate or the unequal.
The third option (closures and other hard choices) is the likely result of the city not covering the funding gap. It, too, is a hard road to travel. Adding schools with no finite limit means that closing existing schools is not only likely, it is inevitable at some point in the process. And closures are, plain and simple, not popular. My colleague James Noonan has written about the potential for school closures in light of Question 2, and I think he covers the important points well. I have also written about school closures from a philosophical perspective, attempting to demonstrate just how complicated the problem is. As Noonan notes, another of our colleagues, Eve Ewing, wrote a masterful dissertation documenting school closures in her hometown of Chicago. I would also stress that just as charter schools increase the options parents and children have to choose from, charters also foreclose options—options that for some are valuable and desirable. This zero-sum instantiation of choice will, again, likely be exacerbated by the lack of additional funding.
The final thing I will say about Question 2 is this: I am not entirely sure that significant charter expansion of any sort—or at least the sort of unlimited growth that Question 2 ultimately enables—is in Boston and Massachusetts’ interest. I am entirely willing to accept that charter schools in Boston are particularly successful. In fact, when you look at how Massachusetts, in general, has handled charter schools there is a lot to like. For example, all potential Massachusetts charter schools must go through the state board of education. This has enabled the state to avoid some of the pitfalls we see in other states, where it sometimes feels like anybody with a half-cooked idea can open a charter school and receive taxpayer money. But I wonder whether and how much the success of Massachusetts charters in general and Boston charters in particular is due to the fact that we do not have too many of them (I am sure that one of my readers may have some data that answers this question, so please, please share!). If we open the floodgates, do we risk not only our municipal finances but also an already seemingly good thing?
I realize as I am finishing up that I have mostly just told you what I think rather than address your particular question. But I hope that in giving you my reasons you might recognize that this decision point does not have to rest on or resolve everything that bubbles to the surface whenever we talk about charter schools. Fixing educational inequality is a gargantuan, perhaps Sisyphean, task. We need to make sure each step forward is carefully placed. Question 2, as it stands, is not that sort of step forward.
Till next time,
Jacob Fay is a doctoral student and member of the Early Career Scholar Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as a graduate fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. He is the co-editor, with Meira Levinson, of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries. Prior to his doctoral studies, he taught eighth-grade history at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @Edulosopher.
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