Five students are suing the state for a better education — for some.
In September, five anonymous students filed a suit against the state in Suffolk County Superior Court alleging the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts unfairly denies them their right to a quality education. The students had entered charter lotteries, but failed to win coveted spots in one of the public-ish schools. Instead, the students say, they were assigned to attend schools in their home districts that had been deemed “underperforming” by the state.
Since No Child Left Behind, school reform has been more concerned with helping some children find ways out of the traditional public school system than improving education for everyone. Charter schools are a symptom of this escapist philosophy, which is unfortunate because the idea of a charter school education is a good one.
Typically founded by nonprofits and members of the community, charter schools often concentrate education around one subject. Locally, these concentrations include the arts, social justice, and Mandarin. Students enroll in charters through a blind lottery that anyone can enter. Placing students in schools that encourage their passions is excellent education. And it produces some positive results. For example, in 2013, Credo, an independent education research firm, analyzed the impact charter schools have had on Massachusetts. In math and reading, researchers found that charter school students perform better in the subjects compared to those in traditional public schools.
The problem with charter schools is the education provided comes at the cost of traditional public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, but work independently of a hometown district. Last year in Massachusetts, participating school districts paid charter schools $369.7 million to educate students. Charters receive per-student fees from sending districts — money that would otherwise stay in the home school’s till. Children fleeing an underperforming school district take money with them that is needed to improve the local education system.
I’m not proposing students be forced to attend failing schools. A student should have the choice to attend the school that best fits her educational needs. I am asking the state’s politicians to take a hard look at how charters are managed, funded, and how students are enrolled – because the current system is inadequate. Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker proposed a bill that would increase the number of charter schools in the state. The bill would permit 12 new or expanded charter schools each year in districts performing in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests. Massachusetts already has 81 charter schools with a waiting list of 37,000 students. A bill to expand the cap on charter schools in the state passed the House last year, but floundered in the Senate.
Here’s what needs to happen with charters:
Improve special education and non-native English speaker recruitment: While charters typically serve about the same number of low-income students — and more students of color — as traditional public school systems, they enroll far fewer non-native English speakers and students with special education needs. The Credo audit found that in traditional Massachusetts public schools that send children to charters, 17 percent of students received special education services, whereas in charter schools this population made up 12 percent of the student body. Traditional public schools had 10 percent English language learners in the student body, while charters had 6 percent.
Submit to School Committee authority: Charters don’t play by the same rules as traditional public schools. The schools aren’t subject to the authority of an elected school committee and have a legal pass around some of the state’s educational and special education requirements.
There’s good reason for more oversight. Private management of charter schools. A new report claims more than $200 million in fraud and wasted taxpayer funds has been lost to the charter school sector (“The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities To Waste, Fraud, And Abuse” by Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy). It’s hard to say whether this same kind of scandal could occur in Massachusetts. Charter schools need to, at the very least, be subject to more public scrutiny and submit to the budgeting and policy authority of a local, elected school committee.
Analyze funding strategy: Charter schools should not be succeeding at the cost of the education of students in underperforming districts. Something must be done that will allow students to pick the education that is best for them without penalizing struggling schools.
The student plantiffs suing for their right to attend charter schools say the state charter cap unfairly denies their right to a quality education, but that right cannot come at the cost of the rest of Massachusetts’ students.•
Contact Kristin Palpini at email@example.com.