Expand Public Charter Schools?

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This week, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education awarded 3000 new charter school seats across the Commonwealth. It increases the number of students that can be educated at new or existing charter schools in the Commonwealth.

While this is exciting news for students and families, Massachusetts has again reached a legal cap in Boston and is close to a cap in Holyoke and Lawrence, such that no new charters can be awarded in these communities until the Legislature votes to lift the cap.

It’s not just Massachusetts, of course. Across the United States, a debate is raging over the legality and wisdom of the publicly-funded charter school model. Many, are puzzled over the debate. Why are there statutory caps? Who stifles what works?! But it’s not that simple…

Publicly subsidized charter schools draw from the same tax dollars that fund incumbent districts. Charters often hire from industry instead of teaching colleges and they often ignore the pay scales that were negotiated in good faith with collective bargaining units in the communities served. In fact, their very existence breaks covenants entered into with unions. For these reasons, the public-charter school model is fighting against some who feel strongly that it is not in the best interests of students or their communities.

If today’s post were like the many that appear under my name, the title of this post would end with an emphatic “Hell Yes!”. After all, I am biased. This Blog is all about bias—and as chief editor, I often use it as my personal bully pulpit.

I support the public charter school model. But I have tended to avoid the public debate, because my chief reasons are anecdotal or the product of an outside bias:

  • I live next to a fantastic charter school, serving pupils from 70 communities
  • Our local school district is constantly in danger of losing state accreditation
  • My daughter transferred from the local public school to the charter school. She thrives in her new environment, just like pupils at both ends of the spectrum
  • I generally dislike and distrust unions *
  • Our charter school principal is talented, engaged, motivated and has a pas-
    sion that demonstrates an unfettered interest in the success of every student

* I generally avoid debating the merits of charter schools (from the perspective of student and the perspective of taxpayer). That’s because my general anti-union bias was baked in by a father who directed operations at a manufacturing plant during my formative years. It’s difficult to see unions as anything other than money grubbing, self-serving organizations unto themselves (not their constituents) when you have seen negotiations between management and the Teamsters or any local machinist or electrical workers union.

The high school in my public school district is constantly in danger of losing state accreditation. Standardized test scores are near the bottom of the heap. And yet, our community also hosts the top middle/high charter school in the state. My daughter has transferred to this fantastic charter school in my own backyard. Using the same tax dollars but with a keen financial disadvantage (despite popular conception), the difference is like night and day. Our charter school consistently tops state scores and – more importantly – real world metrics. In fact, with freedom from onerous union contracts and a principal whose incentives are fully aligned with pupils, your charter school can excel too.

A few months ago when discussing our pre-election analysis of Barak Obama, I pointed to his failure to strongly support a public charter school model. I was wrong. Shortly before that post, Obama was interviewed by NBC News correspondent, Savannah Guthrie. The US president not only demonstrated strong support for charter schools, he also put the teachers’ unions on notice by supporting pay for performance.

But enough armchair analysis! A reader responding to our Barack Obama piece is an analyst with more experience than me in politics, market economics, law and education. He strongly disagrees with my position on charter schools. He not only feels that they have an unfair advantage, he believes they undermine a public school system that deserves more public attention and support.

Today, he represents one side in our counterpoint editorial for and against expansion of the public charter school model. During preparation for today’s column, I have given both sides access to each others’ drafts. Nothing has been withheld.

Arguing for expansion of the public charter school model, Marc Kenen, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Making a case against expanding public support for charter schools is James Tenser, an analyst, journalist and author from a family of public school teachers.

An Argument For and Against
Expansion of the Public Charter School Model

Read the arguments side-by-side

Charter School-s


High Performing Charter Schools Should Be Allowed to Expand
By Marc Kenen – February 2013

America was founded on what was then the radical idea that a society could be a meritocracy in which ideas that succeed can flourish. The creation of charter public schools has spurred the kind of educational innovation that should be allowed to thrive not only through the expansion of charters, but also the extension of charter-like reforms to district schools.

President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative provided incentives for states to enact various public school reforms, including removing restrictions on the growth of charters. Nearly 20 states responded by eliminating all caps on charter growth. But many states across the country still impose arbitrary caps. And many urban school districts bound by unyielding teachers’ union contracts have not been able to enact meaningful reforms.

AMSA Charter School, Marlborough MAMassachusetts enacted a limited cap lift in 2010 – allowing charters to double the number of seats they offer in low performing districts and reserving new charters for operators that had a proven track record of success.

Recently filed legislation in Massachusetts would allow charters to expand without limits in the state’s lowest performing school districts. This would provide parents in those districts with more public school choices and their children with high quality educational opportunities.

Throughout their history, charters have attacked head-on the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor kids, particularly in urban areas. Their primary mission is to provide high quality educational options for disadvantaged families and they have historically concentrated in urban areas to attract children who are poor, minority and far behind where they should be academically.

Charters generally provide hundreds of additional hours in the classroom, through longer school days and longer years. They establish a culture of excellence setting high standards for their teachers and students and providing the additional supports they need to succeed.

Academic Performance

While charter performance from state-to-state varies, there is no doubt they have been a success in Massachusetts, which provides a good model of how strict oversight and high levels of accountability can breed success. Independent national organizations have rated Massachusetts charter system among the best in the nation and it shows in the academic results.

Charter public schools in Massachusetts are proving that children from these urban communities can achieve at the same high level as children from affluent suburbs.

The vast majority of charter public schools dramatically outperform their host district schools, and have lower dropout and truancy rates.  Last year, 24 charters ranked first in the Commonwealth on various MCAS tests and academic improvement rankings. Many urban charter public schools with mostly low-income and minority students outscore even affluent suburban schools on MCAS.

Charter schools also rank high in the state’s new academic accountability system, which ranks how well schools close race-and-income-based achievement gaps.


Lift the Cap

Given their performance, it’s not surprising that demand for charter public schools across the country is through the roof.  In Massachusetts, just over 29,000 students are enrolled in charters, but another 45,000 are on waitlists. Most of the waitlisted children – 35,000 – live in one of the state’s lowest performing districts.

Given the track record of performance and the incredible demand for new seats, states should not place restrictions on charter growth.

In Massachusetts, the recently filed legislation would eliminate charter caps in districts ranked in the bottom 10 percent statewide, which educate nearly one-third of all public school children. Seven-out-of-ten students in these districts are low-income, 60 percent are African-American and 63 percent come from families in which English isn’t the first language.

The bill would also allow charters to open on an expedited basis in districts that have been placed into receivership, and require municipalities to make space in unused public buildings available to charters.

Financial Impact Exaggerated

Misinformation is the best tool charter opponents use against expansion.

Money has long been at the core of opposition to charter public schools, but the financial impact on districts is grossly exaggerated. First of all, charter schools are public schools, so there is no loss of public education funding in those communities. It’s simply allocated to a different type of public school.

States have different ways to fund charters, but the Massachusetts model seems fairest. It provides charters with the same amount of money the districts would have spent if the children had stayed in their classrooms. Since districts no longer educate these students, they no longer keep the funding.

Massachusetts is unique in that it also provides some financial assistance to districts that lose students to charters – recognizing that not every penny that “follows the student” can be saved in district budgets. The state reimburses districts for funds lost to charters – districts get more than double their money back (225%) over the six-year period. Districts receive every penny back the first year, and then 25% in each of the next five years. It is the most generous reimbursement policy in the country.


Opponents try and dismiss this academic success by claiming charters “select” only the best students. But, charters are open to all students, and enrollment is determined by random lotteries. On a statewide basis, charters serve a far higher percentage of minority and poor children, and a similar percentage of special needs children. And while district schools serve more children who either cannot speak English or struggle with it, recent efforts to attract immigrant families are changing that. Three new charter schools in Massachusetts focus on teaching English-language learners and others have opened in neighborhoods with high immigrant populations.

Private? No. Independent? Yes

Recently, teachers unions and other charter opponents have accused charters of “privatizing” public education. But, charters are public schools; they are founded by local citizens and are overseen by local public boards. They operate independent of local school districts, report directly to the state department of education, and are not required to collectively bargain with teachers unions. They are not “private” in any way. The unions are confusing “private” with “non-union.”

Opponents also claim that charters are “not accountable to anyone,” simply because they do not report to local districts or local school boards. But that’s the point. Charters are designed to be independent of the local bureaucracy.

No aspect of education reform has been more successful than charters.  In a meritocracy, they have earned the right to expand and meet more of the overwhelming demand for schools that provide a world-class education to the neediest children.

Marc Kenen is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.


Confessions of a Charter School Skeptic
By James Tenser – February 2013

Questioning the charter school movement in America feels like a touchy business. There are powerful forces in play within our governments and communities. There are powerful people channeling impressive sums of private money to fund their progress. There are powerful emotions in the hearts of parents who sincerely and appropriately want what is best for their children.

I think there are two main areas of discussion regarding charter schools. The first is the relatively straightforward matter of education consumption that parents confront every school year in every community in the nation: “Where shall I send little Amanda so that she receives the best possible education in a safe environment that nurtures her talent and self image and enables the best possible future?”

It’s natural for any parent to want their kids to receive an ideal education. We may define “ideal” in any number of ways, according to our beliefs, preferences, prejudices, desires and fears. If a nearby charter school represents that ideal option (or at least the best available one), we will move heaven and earth to get Adam or Amanda enrolled. We feel it’s our responsibility and our right to do so.

If freedom of choice were there only issue raised by charter schools, this critique might end here and now. Charter schools would simply thrive or fail based on their ability to provide an attractive option. But the second area of discussion is far less straightforward. For me it raises darker concerns about how we model the future of our society and even the motivations of some of the individuals who advocate most strongly in favor of the Charter option.

“Old School” Nostalgia

Public education has for generations been a foundation of the American way of life. It’s been our way of preparing young people for the workforce, for military service, for participation in the political and cultural affairs of our nation. In a nation of immigrants, public schools have been a primary engine for acculturation and assimilation of new arrivals. They have been the places where our traditions of meritocracy, fair play and social equality have been inculcated and reinforced. They have been the places where the ambitions and intellectual contributions our young people have been identified, honed and brought to the surface.

Charter_School_3sThe old public schools were far from flawless. In too many corners of the country they were manipulated to help institutionalize unfair social practices and outright discrimination. They have too frequently perpetuated inertia and apathy that lowered educational quality standards in some communities and harmed America’s academic competitiveness on the world stage.

No wonder the charter school concept had immediate appeal when the idea was first floated by Prof.  Ray Budde of U. Mass. Amherst in 1988. The idea was to operate autonomous, publicly funded schools, which were freed of certain procedural burdens and oriented toward student performance outcomes. For concerned, motivated parents in underperforming districts, this option was a godsend, an affordable chance for their children to escape mediocrity and even danger at some public schools.

I write this from Arizona, a state that has since been a leader in charter school creation. According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, our state “is home to 535 charter schools that enroll 142,368 students in the 2012-13 school year. Fully at least 25 percent of the state’s public schools are charter schools, and 13.5 percent of all public-school students are enrolled in charter schools — the highest percentage for any state, and second only to Washington D.C.”

Full disclosure: I am also married to a middle school math teacher in the Tucson public schools (Tucson Unified School District), who is dedicated beyond reason and who delivers top student test performance year after year. She and I and a number of her colleagues have had thoughtful discussions about how the rapidly expanding charter school movement may be creating both intended and unintended consequences.

Bright Flight

One troubling unintended consequence is micro-economic in nature. When a large, diverse, urban school district loses student population to competing charter schools, the district budgets can become distorted, to the detriment of remaining students. As noted above, motivated parents make individual decisions to move students to charter schools for generally sound reasons. When this happens in large proportion, it amounts to what I call “bright flight” – the departure of the most educationally motivated families first.

A consequence of bright flight is that the school buildings and administrative infrastructure remain, along with their many fixed costs. Payrolls must inevitably be cut. Students who stay behind experience cutbacks in services, including elimination of non-core subjects such as arts, music, shop, phys. ed., sports teams and extra-curricular activities.

I wrote an essay about this issue in 2010, in which I compared the over-schooling of some communities to the over-storing of America. Too much capacity chasing too few consumers is a formula for collapse – which may be healthy, but certainly painful too.

Districts are eventually forced to close and consolidate school buildings – as in Tucson Unified, where 11 schools were designated for closure by the board last December. In a large district, fewer buildings means more remaining  students travel greater distances by bus, further diverting funds out of the classrooms.

The shifts can be demoralizing for teachers and students left behind, who can sense that structural financial issues are overwhelming the mission to educate.

Changing the structure of our public educational system through the widespread implementation of charter schools brings other potential consequences that may amount in some respects to social engineering.  This could be a good thing if we agree on the objectives and have confidence in the means.

But strangely our national debate has not confronted the vision or motives of education reform advocates very vigorously. One might infer that there is a power play afoot, driven by ideology. Philanthropies run by Gates, Waltons, Broads and others have poured billions of dollars into support of the education reform movement over the past several years, including many charter school operations, and the Race To The Top competition. So it’s not unfair to press them on why and what they hope to accomplish. Even where hearts are pure, methods may be suspect.

Charter America?

I harbor another, theoretical, concern – that charter schools might be somewhat self-segregating, by class, ethnicity, or belief. Students who attend them may miss a chance to be exposed to people with differing backgrounds. Already we see charter schools that advertise their points of difference on television. One is focused on sports excellence; another on music and theater; a third on science and math; a fourth promises Christian values; one other promises “no bullying”! I worry this may be culturally regressive – not by design, but in practice. Is the demise of the community school socially, culturally, politically desirable? Is it good for businesses that hope to hire graduates one day? We have yet to confront this as a reasoned public debate.

Of course, some critics have suggested that charter schools are disruptive to unions – threatening disintegration of their power base. Many will shed no tears over this, but once again, we need to ask ourselves if how this change best serves our public school students. Unions are sometimes justly accused of obstructionism, but some union leaders have also been staunch advocates of charter schools.

Education reform in general – and charter schools in particular – bring consequences for our fundamental conception of America. What kind of society are we striving to be? How do we want to prepare our young people to participate in it? What is the proper role for power and influence in our educational system? How can we best define merit for students, teachers, schools, and our nation’s competitiveness?

I would stipulate that these addressing these questions may be fundamentally different from the very personal debate we individually face for and against sending ones’ own child to a charter school. I leave this discussion with food for thought: If we truly had a handle on our institutions of public education, would the charter choice even be necessary?

In addition to being the product, son, brother and husband of talented public school teachers, James Tenser is a retail industry analyst. A former journalist and author, Mr. Tenser pens his own Blog, tenserstirades.com. He is a frequent commentator at RetailWire.com and Chief Analyst at The Center for Advancing Retail Technology.