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High Demand for Public Charters in Boston
July 2, 2014

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
June 27, 2014

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
June 26, 2014

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.

DFER-MA Releases Statement on Stalled Charter Bill in Light of Arne Duncan's Visit to Boston Schools
March 11, 2014

Devin Boyle | 202.445.0416 | Devin@dfer.org


Democrats for Education Reform Releases Statement on Stalled Charter Bill in Light of Arne Duncan’s Visit to Boston Schools

Boston, MA - March 11, 2014 - Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts (DFER-MA) released the following statement today from Massachusetts state director Liam Kerr, urging the passage of a stalled education bill in the state legislature upon Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s visit:

“Doing right by kids can be politically challenging, but President Obama has urged Democrats to power through. In 2010, federal money helped push needed reforms. Today, hopefully, Secretary Arne Duncan’s visit will inspire politicians on Beacon Hill to do the right thing and make the changes we need.

“As reported by The Boston Globe on Sunday, the State House has stalled An Act to Further Narrow the Achievement Gap, a bill to expand high-performing charter schools and further empower districts to turn around low-performing schools. The changes stuck in the Education Committee expand on the most successful aspects of the 2010 bill passed in response to Obama’s “Race to the Top” competition. Secretary Duncan advocated for states to make these exact changes back in 2010.

“While Duncan’s trip has not yet been publicly tied to the bill, he will visit two schools that have seen dramatic results from kids as a result of this legislation—created over the fervent objection of strong forces on Beacon Hill.

“In 2010, entrenched interests like the Boston Teachers Union promoted the claim that “Race to the Top” would not improve education. But it did, through both charter school expansion and district school turnarounds. Secretary Duncan will visit both these models of reform on this trip: success stories that would not have been possible if we listened to those same groups with a direct financial stake in the process that are objecting to the current bill. President Obama challenged Democrats to rise to the occasion in 2010, and we have to again now.

“The educational policies that President Obama and Secretary Duncan promote are difficult for adults, especially politicians. But let’s focus on kids. These changes have worked for Massachusetts, and we need more. Our kids deserve better.”

About Democrats for Education Reform

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is a political action committee with 13 state offices whose mission is to encourage a more productive dialogue within the Democratic Party on the need to fundamentally reform American public education. DFER operates at all levels of government to educate elected officials and support reform-minded candidates for public office.

A Strong Education Democrat Takes the Race in Boston
November 5, 2013

By Liam Kerr, DFER Massachusetts (DFER-MA) State Director

As many of us sleep off our post-election hangovers, the new mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, is already planning for his next four years in office— years that will no doubt include tremendous improvements to Boston’s public schools.

Those who have followed the race know that DFER was a strong supporter of Walsh’s opponent, John Connolly, since we named him as a Reformer of the Month back in 2011. But, although Connolly didn’t get the “V” we all hoped for, we can confidently say a genuine reformer won his seat as the next mayor of Beantown.

As we said early on, both Connolly and Walsh are education Democrats; Connolly just happens to be an exceptional one. And, regardless of the outcome, two things have become clear: we have a lot of work to do to get our schools where they need to be; and, although Walsh was not our first choice, we are confident that he will live up to the promises he has made to improve Boston’s schools.

In the end, what matters most is this race is still a win for the students of Boston who can look forward to having a mayor who will keep their best interests at heart and work hard to improve the education they receive.

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.

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