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Charters Schools are Beyond an Experiment

By Liam Kerr, DFER Massachusetts State Director

Politician [pol-i-tish-uh‚ÄČn] noun: The only animal that can sit on a fence and keep both ears on the ground.*

This definition fit Massachusetts’ politicians straddling both sides of the charter school debate just a few years ago. In our state, which is home to the nation’s second-oldest charter school system, a common fence-straddling approach was to offer the rhetorical question: “Weren’t charter schools just experiments to find effective practices for regular schools?”

This position had many advantages. It avoided a reactionary, self-preservation response: “Charter schools take from the local pot of money we control”; or ideological conspiracy theories: “Those liberal charter fans have been brainwashed into a right-wing takeover of public education.”

It also projected an air of change while averting the need to support any politically challenging reforms. If public charter schools are just experiments, it is easy to justify limiting their number without any regard to the quality of education provided - as the official platform of the Massachusetts State Democratic Party stated until 2009.

Massachusetts Democrats took a strong step away from this line of thinking in 2010. The Act Relative to the Achievement Gap, a piece of legislation related to the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top competition, doubled the number of charter schools in the lowest-performing cities - not to experiment, but as fully legitimate schools for effectively educating children.

Why have some Massachusetts Democrats begun to evolve from viewing high-performing charter schools as small scale experiments to viewing them as part of a multi-faceted solution?

Two reasons.

First, over the last two decades many charter schools emerged from their “experiment” with incredible results. These successes drew the attention of parents, community leaders, and policymakers.

Second, the existing system proved remarkably adept at resisting reforms that were the key ingredients of those experiments, including longer school days and flexible hiring. Unsurprisingly, most low-performing schools in the existing system took those same ingredients and continued getting the same disappointing results.

Luckily for Massachusetts' families, courageous local Democrats have followed Obama’s lead by helping move their colleagues off the fence and pushing for more high-performing public charter schools. The bill that passed in 2010 is already having significant effects for thousands of children throughout the state. The Act Relative to the Achievement Gap let some of the thousands of students on waiting lists into new charter schools, and gave additional leeway to other struggling schools. On the first round of results released this fall, many of those schools showed incredible success - and added another data point for viewing successful charter schools as part of the solution, not as experiments.

We must continue finding new ways to improve our education system. But when a solution presents itself, politicians should leap off the fence to do something about it - and find fellow Democrats waiting there to lend support.

* Quote credited to writer H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Liam has advised nonprofits in Massachusetts, an NGO consultancy in the Czech Republic, a charter school incubator, and a charter school network. He has worked on statewide political campaigns in Massachusetts and Vermont. Prior to DFER, Liam worked for the management consultancy The Parthenon Group and the national venture philanthropy fund New Profit Inc. Read more about Liam here.