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In Massachusetts charter school vote, a debate on how best to serve all children

The vote, on whether to lift a cap on publicly funded but privately run charter schools, is being seen as a national referendum on how best to serve all children.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Students exit school through the front entrance after classes at the Boston Collegiate Charter Middle & High School campus on June 16, 2014, in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.

When Daphne Lawson’s 4-year-old daughter had to spend six months quarantined from her K1 district public school class after medical treatment, the Boston Public School district offered her 90 minutes of daily tutoring.

Her peers were in class six hours each day, however – and when her daughter returned to school, she could not catch up, Ms. Lawson says. After five years and $960 a month of math and reading tutoring, Lawson enrolled her in a KIPP charter school. Within five months, she was on par with her classmates. She attributes the turnaround to more individual attention and longer school days.

That is why Lawson will be voting yes on the controversial Massachusetts ballot Question 2 on Nov. 8, which favors lifting the cap on the publicly funded but privately run charter schools. If passed, it will allow up to 12 new or expanded schools per year.

Under current rules, Massachusetts could add another 42 charters statewide before it bumps up against the cap of 120. But it cannot add them where they are in greatest demand – in urban districts like Boston, where some 32,000 mostly black and Latino students sit on state waiting lists – because of spending caps.

Given the logjam, backers see adjusting the cap as a logical response to the demand for greater choice, especially for low-income families who may be stuck in poorly performing schools and want the options that wealthier families have.

But critics say the state's focus should be on strengthening traditional schools. They predict greater problems for already struggling schools – in particular, they say, because compensation for schools that lose students is inadequate, and because those schools will largely be the ones tasked with educating students with behavior problems or special needs.

As both sides press their cause, backed by some $30 million flowing in from advocacy groups inside and outside the state, the vote is being seen as a national referendum on how best to serve all children. And a central question is whether a system set up some 20 years ago to drive more innovation can be part of the answer in addressing sharpening concerns about inequality.

“For me it feels like the final showdown,” says Kristen Johnson, an education blogger and a BPS Citywide Parent Council representative for the Ellis Mendell School, which her twin daughters attend. “I feel like this is the final battle of whether we’re going to uncap charter expansion completely, or maintain the integrity of public education.”

A week out from the election, some polls have likely voters evenly split.

Increase inequality?

The vote will come at a time when controversy around charter schools has been making national headlines. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has called for a nationwide moratorium on charters, saying they lead to increased segregation and inequality in the public school system. It argues that the best way to address the problem is simply to strengthen regular public schools – not siphon off resources to charters.

They worry that the potential influx of charter schools in urban areas – the demand in most suburban areas is small to nonexistent – will increase overall inequality.

In the case of Boston, for one thing, some 4,000 homeless students from the district could be left languishing in traditional schools strapped by dwindling funds. And charters could also attract academically strong underserved kids, leaving behind special needs students. Even some charter teachers concede that students with special needs don’t always thrive in charters, often finding their way back to district schools with more experienced special ed teachers.

Lisa Guisbond got involved in education policy as the parent of a child with special needs in public school. The executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, Ms. Guisbond believes that lifting the cap will undermine a fundamental principle of Massachusetts education: its commitment to serving all students.

“Many people don’t realize what kind of an advance it was when special education laws were passed that students had a right to be … included with other kinds of peers,” Ms. Guisbond says. “[Charter schools are] segregating people on certain measures of strength and weakness, but it’s also depriving kids of the opportunity to learn from kids who have strengths that aren’t measured in traditional ways."

Scores and discipline

However, many parents like Lawson say Massachusetts' charter schools are showing the kind of progress that should win them greater support.

“How big are these effects? The test-score gains produced by Boston’s charters are some of the largest that have ever been documented for an at-scale educational intervention,” researchers Sarah Cohodes and Susan Dynarski wrote in a September article for the Brookings Institution.

"After three years in a Boston charter school, students make up roughly the equivalent to the black-white achievement gap," says Ms. Cohodes about their findings.

The two were among a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative who prepared research for the philanthropic Boston Foundation and the New School Venture Fund, which invests in educational entrepreneurs.

Sustaining student gains is a key argument for Lawson, whose son might have to move onto a traditional public high school next year from his KIPP charter school. The KIPP school cannot expand to include high school grades because of the current cap.

“With him now, the anxiety starts again, where's he going to go? There's absolutely no way I'd take him out of the structure and discipline and rigor of this system and put him back in a Boston public high school,” she says, unless he follows the path of her oldest two kids by getting into top exam schools like Boston Latin School or Boston Latin Academy.

For Krista Fincke, a charter school teacher, that structure has been a draw – innovations like longer days and customized programs extended to all students. Those confirm her view that choice is the best way of creating a more “equitable education system.”

Some parents say one reason charters can boast higher test scores is because they use strict discipline to weed out students with special needs and behavioral issues.

Ms. Fincke acknowledges charters have had to evaluate their no-excuses approach to discipline in light of the recent national headlines pointing to the disproportionate discipline of students of color across the nation. But, she says, "I have seen the no-excuses charter schools work for 99 percent of my students.”

Working together

Monique Burks, a parent education activist, is happy with how her daughter is performing academically at the Jackson Mann K-8 school. But given that the traditional school "can’t afford books," she puts their results down to involved parenting and teachers going above and beyond.

She'd like to see more of that process as Massachusetts, where charters have performed and been regulated at a much higher level than in much of the country, goes to vote next week. While she says she will be voting no, Ms. Burks echoes others in wishing that both charters and districts could work more “collaboratively.”

Burks says she’s seen it divide families, especially with multiple children, where one is thriving at a charter and another is not.

“My friends are like, it's divisive within my household because my husband and I are maybe fighting about what education system is the right one,” she says.

Fincke says she rues “the animosity” and division caused by the ballot and wants charters to be part of a system that allows them to fulfill their original mandate of sharing ideas with the broader public system, and vice versa.

“I got into a charter school for this very reason," she says, "that we should be sharing best practices and we should be finding the models that work, and spreading them so that they work for everybody.”

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