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High Demand for Public Charters in Boston

As in climate change, ignore the deniers.

By Liam Kerr, DFER-MA State Director

Climate change deniers often argue that some scientists agree with their position. Yet here in Massachusetts, we know that climate change is real—and we know something’s not right when a lone, climate change-denying scientist uses a questionable study to disagree with the vast majority of widely accepted scientific research. When evidence overwhelmingly points in one direction, we shouldn’t give equal weight to the one data point in the opposite direction, especially when it is questionably obtained. The same kind of logic should apply to the “debate” over public charter school demand in Boston.

Just like with climate science, the majority of evidence is clear: Boston parents and voters support public charter schools. An ERN poll last winter—using President Obama’s pollster—found that more than 70% of Boston voters view charter schools favorably. A majority of respondents to the same poll said they would send their children to a Boston public charter school over a traditional district public school.

But, you don’t have to take just our word for it. WBUR (Boston’s NPR station) sponsored a September 2013 poll by MassINC that found 61% of Boston residents favor lifting the cap on public charter schools. A Herald/Suffolk University poll from July 2013 found that Boston parents would rather send their children to a public charter school than a district school. Now, as the MA Senate mulls a charter cap lift, a poll commissioned by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association found that 62% of parents support raising the cap. And these results are backed up by those with the most at stake—the 20,000 students on waiting lists for Boston charter schools.

As with climate change, the consensus is clear. But an article published in yesterday’s Boston Globe told a slightly different story. The piece reported on the latest poll finding strong support for lifting the charter cap—but allotted equal space to a BTU poll finding that only 29% of voters favored public charter schools in Boston.

The BTU poll is clearly an outlier, and looking at the wording of the question on the poll explains why: respondents were asked to choose between focusing on the “large majority of Boston's students” instead of “charters that only serve a few.” While the Herald, ERN, WBUR, and MPCSA polls all asked straightforward questions such as “should the limit on the number of students who can attend charter schools in Boston be kept in place as it is today OR should the limit be raised so more students from Boston can attend charter schools?”, this push poll yields a strongly biased result—due to setting up a question that nearly anyone would agree with.

Maybe another poll, neutral and methodologically sound, could put to bed once and for all the doubts about charter school demand. Just as in climate change, we’re fairly certain results will be consistent.

But if the BTU is convinced to the contrary, they should develop a fair question for us to ask. They can even choose the pollster. Deal?

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.

Myths and Realities of MA's Public Charter Schools

By John Griffin, DFER-MA Policy Fellow

Policy leaders from across the United States are trying to reproduce the proven success of Boston’s public charter schools. But you wouldn’t know that from the charter debates currently happening in the Commonwealth, where opponents are repeating the same tired, unsupported criticisms. They argue charters achieve their high performance through unsavory means, like taking money from public schools, failing to serve all kids, or somehow forcing kids out.

The sad reality is that no matter how good charter schools are— no matter how much good they do for students that need them most— there will always be a political struggle replete with undue criticism. But now with new data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, we can bust some myths about Boston’s public charter schools..

Myth #1: Charters bump up their test scores by failing to serve students with special needs.

According to this argument, public charters dump special needs kids back into district schools, widening the disparity in test scores to their benefit. But the best-performing public charters actually serve greater proportions of special needs students than the average BPS school, and they serve greater proportions of special needs kids than BPS’ top performers.

The average BPS district school has a special needs population of 19.5% of the total student body. (The state average is 17%). But all five of BPS’ Level 1 schools come in below that figure. The three top BPS performers (Boston Latin, Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant) have rigorous entrance exams and special needs populations ranging between 1.1% and 3.1% of their student bodies.

The top-performing Level 1 public charter schools, by contrast, serve special needs populations close to or greater than the BPS district average. All six public charter high schools serve special needs populations greater than 16%, and two of Boston’s Level 1 charters (Codman Academy and City on a Hill) have special needs populations of 25.3% and 22.4%, well over the BPS average.

Myth #2: Charters drive up performance by booting out students that don’t get good test scores.

This hypothesis assumes that public charter stability is low (students that begin the school year in a Boston public charter don’t end the year there) and that attrition is high (students who end a year at a charter school don’t return to that school the next year)


DFER-MA testifies against new school performance assessments

Source: MA Charter Public School Association

On Tuesday, June 24th, DFER-MA sent policy fellow John Griffin to testify against proposed changes to public charter school regulations at the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The proposed policy is projected to eliminate charter school seats in four high-need, urban districts while increasing seats in higher-performing suburbs. The Board unanimously adopted the proposal, but DFER voiced its opposition, bearing testimony to the unjust consequences of the newly-adopted plan.

The new formula calculates the bottom 10% of districts using 75% achievement data—the district’s performance on standardized tests—and 25% growth—the improvements of individual students in that district over time. Previously, the bottom 10% was calculated using 20% growth and 80% achievement data.

That change in percentages might not seem like much, but DFER’s testimony bore witness to its monumental consequences. Several struggling districts will leave the bottom 10%, a status that affords them a higher charter school cap by state legislation, and as a result will lose significant charter seats. The districts projected to leave the 10%-—Worcester, Brockton, Somerville, and Haverhill—serve large, diverse populations with many low-income students. The four suburban districts who will enter the bottom 10% under the new calculation, on the other hand, tend to serve more affluent populations.

The new formula effectively widens the opportunity gap, granting increased access to a quality education to students who are, on average, already more advantaged. At the same time, it denies that opportunity to the 2,200 students on public charter school waiting lists in the four communities slated to lose their higher charter cap—communities serving much larger proportions of disadvantaged students.

During the deliberations, several proponents of the change suggested the Board may further change the formula, placing yet more emphasis on growth and thereby removing more public charter seats from high-need urban areas. While growth in struggling districts should be commended, students in those districts cannot wait for that growth to reap fruit.

We need to do all that we can to ensure that all Massachusetts students have access to a quality education. But removing public charter school seats from the districts that need them most directly impedes that goal. Moving forward, we hope proponents of quality public education will resist further emphasis on growth in calculating the bottom 10% of districts.

A transcript of DFER’s testimony follows.

Thank you Dr. Commissioner, Madame Chairwoman, and members of the board.

My name is John Griffin. I am a policy fellow at Democrats for Education Reform, Massachusetts; a rising junior at Harvard College; and a proud graduate of Walpole Public Schools. I am also a former member of the Southeast Regional Advisory Council to the Board of Education, where we conducted rigorous studies of charter school policies in the Commonwealth.

When I was on the Advisory Council from 2010 to 2012, charter schools were a frequent topic of discussion. The debates were often contentious, but as student representatives in the room, we all seemed to share a common goal of reducing inequality and increasing parity of educational opportunity in Massachusetts. Today’s proposed regulations completely undermine that goal, effectively widening the opportunity gap by decreasing access to quality education of choice to already disadvantaged students while increasing access for students who are, on average, already more advantaged.

Under the proposed regulation, four districts—Worcester, Somerville, Brockton, and Haverhill—would no longer be classified in the bottom 10%, thereby losing their higher charter school cap. Four other districts—Hawlemont, Wareham, Dennis-Yarmouth, Spencer-East Brookfield, and Easthampton—enter the bottom 10%, gaining a higher cap. These districts feature significantly better performance than those districts removed from the bottom 10%, while also serving smaller proportions minority or low-income students.

While the Commonwealth has taken considerable steps toward reducing the opportunity gap since 1993, we cannot deny the fact that equal educational opportunity is not yet a reality in Massachusetts. Low-income and minority students still have greatly decreased access to quality education compared to their more privileged peers, and districts featuring greater proportions of minority or low-income students tend to exhibit unsatisfactory performance and growth.

According to the Supreme Judicial Court in McDuffy, the state Constitution mandates that the Commonwealth provide a quality education to all Massachusetts students—regardless of income level or zip code. The proposed regulations impede fulfillment of that obligation, solidifying a two-tiered educational system in which students of means are afforded several high-quality educational choices while students of need are consigned to struggling districts that cannot meet their needs.

In the four districts slated to be removed from the bottom 10%, fewer than half of all students were educated to a proficient level in math and English in 2013, as measured by MCAS. Meanwhile, 2,200 students in those communities remain on charter school waiting lists. The proposed regulations would directly decrease the chance of a better education for those students. If we are truly committed to the ideal of equitable public education, we cannot raise the cap in more affluent districts while lowering it in districts where public charter schools can do the most good.

The proposed regulations run counter to both conscience and Constitution.

Thank you.

With Passage of H.R. 10, Our Work Is Paying Off

Source: www.govtrack.us

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Earlier today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bipartisan "Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act" (H.R. 10) by a margin of 360-45. This bill would reauthorize the federal Charter Schools Program and put several new provisions into law that would provide better support to charter school start-ups and help replicate and expand high-quality charter school models. Special thanks go to Ranking Education Committee Member George Miller and Congressman Jared Polis for their leadership in co-authoring the bill and shepherding it through the legislative process.

The story behind the numbers is that the work we are doing together to stand up for the little guy and support better schools for all kids is clearly paying off with Democrats. Democrats voted in favor of H.R. 10 by a margin of 158 to 34. The number of Democrats who voted yes today increased by a margin of 12 as compared to the number of Democrats who voted for the charter school reauthorization bill in 2011. Seven fewer Democrats voted no.

This is the cumulative effect of all the progress we've made with Democrats across the nation at the state and local levels. Four of the new yes votes were from Washington State Democrats whose voters approved a charter school referendum - with the help of people like you - in 2012.

Please join us in supporting our ed reformers of the month to keep the momentum going and help these good Demcorats stand up for equity, quality, accountability, and a strengthened public education system.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.

DFER Asks House of Reps. to Vote Yes on Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act

Statement by Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

Earlier this week, President Obama issued a proclamation declaring May 4-10 "National Charter Schools Week" during which "we pay tribute to the role our Nation's public charter schools play in advancing opportunity, and we salute the parents, educators, community leaders, policymakers, and philanthropists who gave rise to the charter school sector." 

We ask that members of Congress, in the spirit of President Obama's proclamation, vote in favor of H.R. 10, the bipartisan Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, in today's floor vote on the bill. H.R. 10 was co-authored by Ranking Education and Workforce Committee Member George Miller. Here are four key reasons why this bill unequivocally warrants a yes vote from Democrats.

Democrats Have A Long History as Public Charter School Champions

Former President Bill Clinton was one of the earliest proponents of public charter schools from either party. He spearheaded passage of the first federal charter school law in 1994 when California and Minnesota were the only states with charter laws. Twenty years later, more than 2 million U.S. students in 42 states attend public charter schools.

In remarks to the National Education Association in 1999, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said: "I stand behind the charter school/public school movement, because parents do deserve greater choice within the public school system to meet the unique needs of their children...When we look back on the 1990s, we will see that the charter school movement will be one of the ways we will have turned around the entire public school system." Few of us anticipated how true her vision would turn out to be.

Many other prominent Democrats also support charter schools, including: Antonio Ramón Villaraigosa, former Mayor of Los Angeles; Marian Wright Edelman, President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund; Michael Lomax, President and CEO, UNCF (United Negro College Fund); Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York; Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland; Janet Murguía, President and CEO of NCLR (National Council of La Raza); and former Vermont Governor and Presidential candidate Howard Dean.*

The last time a bill to reauthorize the federal Charter School Program came to the floor for a vote in 2011, the entire House Democratic leadership voted in favor, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Xavier Becerra.

Charter Schools Are Public Schools

Despite strong Democratic support for public charter schools, some Democrats are still misinformed about how public charter schools operate. A charter school is an independent public school. Charters are founded by groups of people (e.g., educators, parents, community leaders, etc.) who develop a plan that sets forth the school's guiding principles and policies. To operate a school, that plan must get approval from a state-recognized charter authorizer that will oversee it once it begins operating.

The organizations that run public charter schools have the same structure, and often include many of the same people, as those that run community-based child care programs, Head Start centers, after-school and summer programs, and Boys and Girls Clubs. Charter schools no more "privatize" K-12 education than any of those entities privatize the other vital services we support for young people in our communities.

Charter Schools Most Help Disadvantaged Students

The well-known Stanford CREDO study on public charter school performance is often quoted by supporters and critics alike. Some individuals cherry-pick data to claim that charters are no better than traditional public schools, and in some cases, worse. 

But these critics leave out other important facts. CREDO's findings tell a much different story about how charters impact the learning of our nation's most disadvantaged students. The following are verbatim quotes from the CREDO report:

"Looking back to the demographics of the charter school sector in the 27 states [that were studied], charter school enrollment has expanded among students in poverty, black students, and Hispanic students. These are precisely the students that, on average, find better outcomes in charter schools. These findings lend support to the education and social policies that focus on education as the mechanism to improve life chances for historically underserved students. Charter schools are especially beneficial learning environments for these students."

H.R. 10 Makes Excellence and Equity the Hallmarks of the Federal Charter Schools Program

H.R. 10 will make quality paramount in the public charter school authorization process and ensure that charters equitably serve historically disadvantaged groups of students. H.R. 10:

  • Strengthens the mechanisms through which public charter schools are held accountable to students, families, and taxpayers so that high-performing public charter schools are replicated and low-performing public charter schools are closed;
  • Puts into law a federal grant program created by President Obama that invests in the replication and expansion of high-quality charter schools;
  • Allows charter schools to use "weighted lotteries" to give a preference to disadvantaged children, including English Language learners and students with disabilities. Many states, due to concern that some of these populations may be underserved by charter schools, have laws requiring such weighted lotteries.

In summary, H.R. 10 deserves the support of charter proponents and skeptics alike. We appreciate your consideration of these issues and the positive effect that a yes vote on Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act will have on thousands of families who are seeking the best educational opportunities possible for their children.


Meant solely to identify these individuals as supporters of charter schools. Not meant to connote an endorsement of this specific bill.

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