Will Massachusetts students be better served with more charter schools? The choice is yours!
On November 8th, Massachusetts voters will be asked to decide on Ballot initiative 2. The question, if approved, would let state education officials expand or open up to 12 new schools a year and eliminate the current cap of 120 schools statewide. For better or worse, passing this initiative could double the number of existing charters in as little as 6 years.
The choice could fundamentally and profoundly impact the way students are educated in the state and could redefine what it means to receive a free and appropriate education.
Reasons to vote YES on Ballot Initiative 2
The strongest argument in favor of charter school expansion is the simple notion of respecting parents’ right to choose what they perceive as best for their children. Currently, around 4% of Massachusetts’ public school students are enrolled in charters. There is an estimated wait list of 30,000 families wishing to enroll. The numbers clearly indicate an unmet demand for school choice and Ballot initiative 2 would go some distance towards meeting that demand.
Charter schools are currently the primary option available to parents wishing to extricate their children from an under-performing school. Yes, it is an indisputable fact that not all schools are equally good at providing a high quality education. A parent whose child is relegated to a school that has a dismal track record has every incentive in the world to find a different option. Charter schools provide this different option.
Furthermore, it isn’t just the search for quality education that motivates families to seek more tailored educational experiences. A host of other reasons may play into the decision, including social and emotional factors. For instance, charters may provide an opportunity to students wishing to escape bullying or another conflict at a current school.
Another common claim in favor of charters is the idea that these schools, will serve as a model for traditional public school reform. They could also force public schools to improve in order to compete for students. The hope is that this competition would improve the outcomes for all students in the district, charter and traditional alike.
Reasons to vote NO on Ballot Initiative 2
There are a few reasons one should consider voting NO on ballot initiative 2.
Charters (as a system of education) draw large sums of money from traditional public schools and have not demonstrated that they can consistently and reliably improve on their academic performance. In fact, charters are considerably less accountable to performance metrics then the schools they seek to supplant. This is because they do not have to answer to elected boards of education or their appointed officials.
It is important to note that while certain charters outperform their surrounding districts, the majority do not. Often the ones that do outperform don’t face the added challenges that public schools do. Public schools often serve large populations of children with disabilities or English language learners. As a result, it is hard to accurately compare academic metrics between the two systems. Massachusetts is frequently ranked as having the best public education system in the country. Why jeopardize it?
Ballot initiative 2 is not a referendum on the existence of charters, just their expansion. One of the major strengths of Massachusetts’ approach to charters has been its relative caution. The state has rigorous legislation requiring reporting and oversight compared to other states. It also has an arduous application and approval process for new schools. These rules have helped the state avoid some of the most egregious abuses of the charter system. If charter growth is allowed to accelerate rapidly it remains unclear if the new schools can be supervised to the same standard. Furthermore, the state hasn’t yet reached the cap of 120 schools, so why eliminate it now?
It is a highly dubious claim that even excellently performing charters will compel under-performing public schools to make any changes to remain competitive. After all, public schools are not subject to market forces the way businesses are. Principals, superintendents, and teachers are not paid or evaluated based on student enrollment. Since the majority of school expenses are inelastic, it is far more likely that the burden will fall on non-core programs. Examples of non-core programs include music, art, sports, foreign language, and physical education. These programs actually lessens the experience for kids remaining in the school making it even less appealing and less ‘competitive’. Since public schools will still be tasked with educating the vast majority of students, you would be hurting the many for the preference of the few.
The role of charters as models for public school reform is also highly debatable since the two operate under substantially different rules and restrictions. It also isn’t clear that more models are required. There isn’t a shortage of well performing schools from which to draw. Massachusetts boasts university-led lab schools, private schools, international schools, and well performing similar public schools in other districts. There are also reams of statistically valid research on best practices that could be used to help reform a given school.