Behind the scenes (and out in the hallway) at the Statehouse charter school hearing…
And that’s a wrap, folks! After nine hours, and thousands of pages of testimony concerning 35 different pieces of legislation—35!—this week’s marathon hearing on the state and future of charter schools in the Bay State had finally reached its end. But still, the question lingered: had anyone actually learned anything? It might surprise you to learn that my answer is an unabashed *Yes.* In fact, I learned quite a lot.
I arrived at the Statehouse with a singular aim in mind: I wanted to talk to charter school parents about how they see the divisive debate. And so I took up residence in the hallway outside of Garden Auditorium, and quickly discovered a delightful truism: that if you wear a lanyard that *technically* does not belong to you and happen to have a bossy-ish demeanor, it won’t be long before you are assumed to be in charge-ish. But enough about me. Governor Baker was in the House!
First of all, let me disabuse you of the notion that the crutches Governor Baker was sporting were the result of a misguided attempt to kick off the charter cap. Old basketball-injured leg or not, Baker *brought it* to the hearing, delivering the kind of cri de coeur against the cap that he seems to deliver, well, most days these days. Alas, if you were hoping that today would be the day upon which Baker finally revealed that of course he knows that there are more students in Massachusetts than the 31,000 who currently attend charter schools and the 37,000 who want to, well, today was not to be your day.
Bump up the volume
Some of the most scathing criticism to be directed at charters came from State Auditor Suzanne Bump, who has been tasked with the thankless task of auditing said schools. That would be the same audit, by the way, that found serious deficiencies in the way that state officials calculated the charter school waiting list. So what’s happened in the year since Bump sounded her audit alarm? Um virtually nothing. The oft-cited waiting list, which would be cited an additional 37,000 times before the hearing was over, still can’t be verified. But who really cares about data these days?
A minute, Marty?
Hey look—isn’t that Mayor Walsh? But which Mayor Walsh? The one who has been signalling to everyone who is anyone that he wants more charter schools in Boston? Or the one who has been privately indicating to parents who worry that Boston’s public schools are being eaten that he *hears their concerns*? As it turned out, both Martys showed up, or maybe neither did. I have no idea, to tell you the truth. All I know is that I happened to be out in the hallway when a parent grabbed the Maeh and requested a moment, then proceeded to tell him that her daughters’ public school is so starved for resources that it lacks even toilet paper in the bathrooms.
Like private schools but free
Can I just remind y’all that charter schools are public schools? This, as it happens, is *technically* true, as the schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. But what is also *technically* true is that at least some of the schools that were heavily represented at the hearing—Edward Brooke, Excel, KIPP—are also the beneficiaries of extraordinary private largesse. The parents I spoke with were deeply appreciative of the resources that are being devoted to their children at these schools. One mom told me that she felt like the charter was really investing in her child. *It’s like a private school, but free,* is what I overheard one mother tell a group of parents as they were leaving the Statehouse. To which I could only wonder: who wouldn’t want that?
*It’s like a private school, but free,* is what I overheard one mother tell a group of parents as they were leaving the Statehouse. To which I could only wonder: who wouldn’t want that?
Was that Mel King???
Indeed, that was none other than Boston’s iconic civil rights leader, who, now 87, has emerged of late as a critic of charter school expansion. And he’s not the only one. While pundits like this guy continue to paint the only source of opposition to charters as stale pale union chiefs, there’s a growing divide over charters within Boston’s African-American community. King told me on his way to testify that he views charters as inconsistent with the bedrock belief expressed in the Pledge of Allegiance. *You know the part about ‘liberty and justice for all’? Well charter schools aren’t for all,* King said. *They’re only for a few and all of the rest of the kids are left out.*
Black and white
The afternoon was upon us and word was officially out that the odd-ish woman camped out in the hallway outside of Gardner Auditorium would literally talk to anyone. So when charter school parent organizer Julia Mejia approached me with a parent who had *an issue she wanted to discuss,* I was all ears. Karla Walker, who heads up a group called Dorchester Cares, told me that she couldn’t help but notice that the majority of anti-charter speakers at the hearing were white, whereas the parents advocating for more charters were overwhelmingly black and brown. I started to object but soon gave up, as, truth be told, I completely agree with this criticism. But I had my own question for Walker: was she bothered by the fact that the people who appeared to be calling all of the shots for Team Charter at the Statehouse also seemed to be overwhelmingly white? Indeed she was, and like that we appeared to have found something we could both agree on: enough with the white men already.
Like that we appeared to have found something we could both agree on: enough with the white men already.
Rule makers, rule breakers
It was nearly 3:00PM—a full five hours after the hearing kick-off—before committee members finally heard from a charter parent with something critical to say about charter schools. The source of that criticism was Marlena Rose, who heads up the Boston Education Justice Alliance, and whose daughter formerly attended Roxbury Prep. Marlena’s tale of how her daughter ran afoul of the school’s strict disciplinary code was a stark reminder that, even two decades in, the debate over urban charters in particular rarely wades into the weeds of what it is these schools actually do.
Charter advocates wax poetic about the longer school day and year, the autonomy of these schools, and the *structure* they provide their students. But you don’t hear much about the extraordinary web of rules governing everything from what color socks and belts students must wear, when and if they can talk, even how often they can use the bathroom. *My son just loves all of the rules,* a mother of a senior at City on a Hill told me. Marlena’s outspoken daughter, on the other hand, didn’t fare nearly as well. Listening to her story, I was reminded of another student whom I met this summer, who told me that she attends a silent high school: *It’s not a good place for extroverts.*
A g thing
That ‘g’ would be for *gentrification,* the other hotly contested topic in Boston these days. Boston, still among the most racially segregated cities in the country is now gentrifying at an astonishing pace. Several of the parents I talked to expressed fear that rising rents (like $1900 a month!) would end up pushing them out of the city altogether. Given the pace of development, they’re right to be concerned. But the debate over the future of schools in Boston is also a fight over who will get to live in a city that’s growing rapidly whiter and richer. Will there be schools that are for all kids, or only for those who can play by the rules? And who gets to decide?
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