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Will Grassroots Beat Big Money In Massachusetts Charter School Vote?

A ballot referendum called Question 2 would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state at the rate of 12 new schools per year. Votes against would maintain the current cap on charters set at 120 schools. (Photo: Mass. Teachers Association/Facebook)

A lot is at stake in tomorrow’s election, but as the New York Times reports, the big war in Massachusetts is not about who will be president but what will happen to the state’s number of charter schools. A ballot referendum called Question 2 would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state at the rate of 12 new schools per year. Votes against would maintain the current cap on charters set at 120 schools.

As the Times reporter explains, most Democrats in the state, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont, have come out in opposition to Question 2 while Republicans generally favor it. But it’s not that simple.

Left-leaning people who want the charter cap lifted, many who come from outside the state, don the mantle of “reformer” and consider the supposed success of charters, particularly those labeled “high-performing,” as a settled matter.

Those folks would no doubt nod in emphatic approval with an op-ed from Times columnist David Leonhardt this weekend who argues that lifting the cap on charters in Massachusetts “would have enormous benefits.” More specifically, Leonhardt points to evidence of the positive benefits of a certain type of charter, which he classifies as “high expectations” schools.

Leonhardt’s “evidence” of the supposed superiority of these charters is based on a very selective and haphazard reading of the research. For instance, if you bothered to click through to the links he provides to studies from other cities (very few people will), you’ll see the studies aren’t terribly relevant to his central case that a certain type of charter school has the special sauce to advance the education attainment of chronically low-performing students.

One of the chains he lauds, Match, gets outstanding results for sure, but some of that success is likely due to the school’s tendency to cull the ranks of its students every year to whittle each grade level cohort down to ensure only the the best and brightest remain by graduation time.
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At least that’s the conclusion Mark Weber draws in his analysis. Weber, an experienced classroom teacher and PhD candidate, writes on his personal blog “the “successes” of Boston’s charter sector could not fairly be compared to the “failures” of the public schools because the two sectors are educating fundamentally different students. “One indicator of this is the cohort attrition rate: the shrinkage in the size of a cohort that occurs because students leave a school, but are not replaced with new students entering.”

Because many of the Boston charters Leonhardt likes don’t have to “backfill” seats when students leave because they can’t meet the “high expectations” of the school, grade cohorts get distilled down to the best performing students from year to year.

Match is a particularly adept practitioner of the this style of student sorting, Weber finds, where grade cohorts can decline so steeply that in some grade 9 classes, fewer than 20 percent of students remain in grade 12.

But more fundamentally, there are substantial flaws with the basis of Leonhardt’s argument for more charters that go beyond an analysis of the statistical data, which all too often are confined to overly narrow metrics of standardized test scores.

First, it’s very easy to frame the issue, as he does, from the perspective of how the charter option benefited a single student or family. At some point there has to be some consideration of what expanding supply of charters has on the whole system. How will expanding charters ensure better results for all students? This is where the argument for expanding charters is weakest.

Leonhardt assumes that if the number of charters is allowed to expand, the new charters will replicate the type of Boston charter schools he likes. There’s absolutely nothing in the referendum or in existing Massachusetts policy to assure this.

Further, that’s a very flawed basis for education policy to begin with. There’s not a strong research base to support the idea that improving an entire education system is simply a matter of just taking “what works” in one school and duplicating that over and over.

For instance, the “high expectations” type of charters Leonhardt likes tends to have ultra strict behavior codes and overly prescriptive pedagogy. The percentage of parents who want that form of schooling for their children is likely very low.

It’s also overly simplistic to believe the outcomes Match and other high-performing charters are able to obtain can be reduced to something as general as “high expectations.” The education process is just way more complicated than that. As Weber writes in another of his posts, “Simply showing that charter school students in Boston get better test scores than similar students in the Boston Public Schools is not, I’m afraid, nearly enough evidence to support lifting the cap.”

Second, Leonhardt doesn’t take into account the financial impact of expanding charters. The creation of a parallel school system of charters comes at substantial cost and risk to the entire public. That’s why credit rating agency Moody’s has warned that should Question 2 pass, there is very real danger it will have a negative impact on municipal bond ratings throughout the state. Also, numerous studies show that the growth of charters in a community has significant negative financial consequences to existing public schools. That’s why over 30 Massachusetts mayors and over 200 local school committees in the state oppose the referendum.

Finally, like so many folks who ardently promote charter schools, Leonhardt comes at this argument from an elitist point of view that believes one can become an expert on a topic simply by scanning some statistical data and perusing a few studies. That’s why his writing drips with contempt for teachers unions, that by the way, are comprised of school teachers who overwhelmingly believe charters, at least as they are currently conceived, endanger not only their profession but also the solvency of public education and the education destinies of our children and communities.

Charter schools fans who are annoyed with those who express concern that charters likely introduce new harms into local school systems and fail at bettering the education attainment of all students have poured almost $22 million into the effort to pass Question 2, according to the Times.

Despite that investment, the Times reporter finds the most recent poll of Massachusetts likely and registered voters showed that 39 percent supported lifting the cap on charters, while 52 percent opposed it.

As my colleague Bill Scher, a Massachusetts resident and voter, observed in an email to me, “If the polls hold up, it will an interesting case study of grassroots organizing beating outside money.”

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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