Sunday, April 3, 2016

No Reason to Lift Charter School Cap

A pro-charter school campaign recently filed a referendum question that will appear on our ballot this fall. The well-funded Wall Street organizations behind this campaign are urging Massachusetts voters and legislators to “lift the cap” on charter schools.  But what exactly is the “cap” and why do advocates want to “lift” it?

The truth is that Massachusetts has never come close to the cap on numbers of charter schools.  That truth reveals the fundamental deceit of the charter crusade.

In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature created two categories of charter schools:  Commonwealth charters and Horace Mann charters.  

Commonwealth charters are publicly funded but privately run schools with minimal oversight.  There is no elected or governmentally appointed oversight of charters on a daily, week, monthly, or even yearly basis. The schools are approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), whose members are hand-picked by the governor.  Democratically elected school committees and local governments have no say in the creation or activities of Commonwealth charter schools. 

At the February meeting of BESE, for example, a unanimous group of elected officials from Brockton – City Council members, mayor, state representatives, a state senator, the school committee – urged that BESE not create a charter school that would drain millions of dollars from Brockton schools.  The board voted 7-3 to approve the charter anyway.

Horace Mann charters are different; they are more like what many school systems call “magnet” schools. These schools are created for the same ostensible reason as Commonwealth Charters – to meet a need or to provide an alternative for families.  Unlike Commonwealth Charters, however, Horace Mann charters are created within a district, by a vote of the local school committee.

There are several types of Horace Mann charters, but in all types, the local school committee oversees the schools and their budgets, as with all truly “public” schools.  Teachers are hired by the district and are members of the union, although they may not be protected by all of the contract provisions that apply in traditional schools.

Horace Mann charters have many advantages.  The usual argument for charter schools is that they have the freedom to innovate without constraints on curriculum, organization, and budget.  But innovation is only effective if the new methods can be replicated and spread widely to other public schools.  Because Horace Mann charters operate under the same superintendents and school committees as traditional public schools, good ideas can be transmitted quickly throughout the district.  Horace Mann teachers must be licensed, unlike teachers in Commonwealth charter schools.

Because teacher requirements are more stringent and teachers retain their union membership, teacher turnover is lower, which research shows to be a crucial predictor of educational quality.

Massachusetts is close to its limit on privately run Commonwealth charters; we have 71 out of 72 permitted by law. Actually, it isn't that close. While there are 71 Commonwealth charters, only 57 count toward the cap. The others 14 do not because they are in the lowest MCAS-scoring districts — charters in those districts by law do not count toward the cap.

And we are nowhere near the limit on publicly run Horace Mann charters; we have only 10 out of a limit of 48. As of the fall of 2016 there will be only two Horace Mann charter high schools, and eight for younger grades.

So why the urgent call to lift the cap? If charter schools are so desperately needed for our inner cities, local community members can advocate immediately for up to 38 Horace Mann charters, potentially serving upwards of 15,000 students.  Even with Commonwealth charters plenty of leeway exists. If charter school corporations want to provide options for residents of the lowest-scoring school districts, they don’t need a referendum or new legislation to create those schools now.

A democratic process already exists, so why aren’t they using it?

The fact that no one in the pro-charter campaign is talking about Horace Mann charters suggests a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the current debate.  The charter campaign is spearheaded by national organizations run not by educators but by billionaires – the Walton Foundation, hedge funds, and large corporations who see enormous profits to be had from privatizing public education. They have committed to spend $18 million this year to “lift the cap” in Massachusetts.

They are expecting a huge return on their investment.  Although they call themselves “Families for Excellent Schools” and “Great Schools Massachusetts,” these organizations are all about money, and they are betting that under Gov. Baker, Massachusetts will siphon more of taxpayers’ money toward corporations and their billionaire investors.

Their campaign has gained support among some state and local activists and consultants who have disdain for public schools and who distrust teachers and their unions that together have built the best public education system in the nation.

These advocates want to bypass the messy process of democracy; they want to create publicly funded private schools, without community accountability, without protections for teachers or students and without restrictions on spending taxpayers’ money.

They want the rest of us to pay for their new private schools.  Don’t let them take the “public” out of public education.

Max Page and Eve Weinbaum are public school parents and professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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