Black and White

I talk to Yawu Miller of Boston’s Bay State Banner about the red-hot debate over charter school expansion in Massachusetts—and what *thought leaders* are getting wrong…

map-of-massachusettsEduShyster: In a few weeks, Massachusetts voters will give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to raising the *cap* on charter schools. The issue has attracted a frenzy of *reporting* from outside of the state, much of it, shall we say, somewhat muddled. Since Boston is at the very center of the scrum, I thought I’d bring in someone who knows a thing or two about the place. Yawu: what are people missing about this story? Besides the fact that Boston is not a state, that is.

Yawu MillerWhat I’ve noticed in the debate in Boston is that people are not against charter schools. They think that there is a place for them. They think that charter schools work well for some people, maybe for their own children. But they don’t want to see the kind of expansion that’s being proposed now. They think there’s a threat to the district school system if that happens. You hear a lot of people saying *I’m not anti-charter. I’m against this ballot question.* I think the funding issue has caused a lot of people who pay attention to the schools to come out strongly against this.

EduShyster: Let’s talk politics. This week Elizabeth Warren came out in opposition to Question 2. The issue is being characterized outside of Massachusetts as *one of the most important tests of social justice and economic mobility of any election in America this fall.* But support among officials in Boston in particular seems, um, thin. Am I right?

gov-charlie-baker-proposes-bill-to-lift-charter-school-capsMiller: In Boston, most elected officials are quiet about it. There are a few other elected officials in other parts of the state, and Congressman Stephen Lynch.  When the Boston City Council voted on a No on Question 2 resolution, 11 councilors voted to oppose the ballot question, two councilors abstained, saying that they didn’t want to take sides. One of the leading voices against Question 2 in Boston has been City Councillor Tito Jackson, who, by the way, is a long-time mentor at the Renaissance Charter School.1 Mayor Walsh, the other leading voice against Question 2, was a founding board member at the Neighborhood House Charter School.2 The rallies that Great Schools Massachusetts has had, and they haven’t had any for a while, were led by Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karen Polito, both republicans. The rallies seemed like they were all charter parents and it was notable that they were all during the school day and there were children there who presumably got time off from school. I think for at least some people this raised some questions about whether you can use school resources that are paid for by public funding to weigh in on a ballot question. I don’t think you can. 

EduShyster: At the center of the debate about charter expansion in Boston is the issue of the waiting list. I get the sense that the architects of the ballot campaign envisioned that parents who are, in their words, *trapped on the waiting list* would form a sort of pro Question 2 army. Has that happened?

Miller: I’ve not seen any evidence of that. I applied to three charter schools for my son, by the way. My son attends a district school that’s doing very well, so it doesn’t mean that he’s trapped in a failing school, even though, presumably, we’re still on the waitlist. That whole notion that there are 11,000 students in Boston who are on charter waitlists is hotly contested. The fact is that there are waitlists throughout the city. There’s a competition for schools that perform well or that have sought-after programs, even if they don’t have the high MCAS scores that many people think are a benchmark of a high-performing schools. We’re on a waitlist for the Rafael Hernandez school which has a tremendously popular bilingual immersion program. I live less than a mile from the school but because it draws from a city-wide base, my son ended up being number 34 on the waitlist and that number hasn’t moved because it’s a really popular school. I think this whole issue has sparked a lot of conversation that’s gone sideways from where I think Great Schools Massachusetts wanted it to go.

That whole notion that there are 11,000 students in Boston who are on charter waitlists is hotly contested. The fact is that there are waitlists throughout the city. There’s a competition for schools that perform well or that have sought-after programs, even if they don’t have the high MCAS scores that many people think are a benchmark of a high-performing schools.

EduShyster: I talk to charter school advocates outside of Massachusetts and they seem baffled by why this is even a debate. They’re blown away by what reseachers call the *effect sizes* of Boston’s charter schools, and that causes them to Tweet things like #unicorn and #nobrainer. In other words, if we just keep expanding the high performing seats, every student in Boston can sit in one. There’s no down side.

brokenwindowsMiller: I think charter schools in Boston have been a fairly positive experience for a lot of kids. You hear from a lot of parents that this absolutely works—that this was the best thing for my son. And if I had a kid who *colored in the lines,* not like me or my son, I would definitely consider sending him to a charter school. But there are also a lot of kids who’ve been pushed out as a result of excessive discipline. We saw from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights report that charter schools had suspension rates that were 20-30% higher than the Boston Public Schools. One school, Roxbury Prep, had suspension rates of more than 60% one year. To me that’s just inconceivable. I’m trying to imagine what that must be like to sit in a classroom and 60% of your classmates have been suspended. And those are often the kids who end up leaving. They can’t take it any more, or their parents can’t keep taking time off of work to go and pick them up every time they get suspended. In the wealthier suburbs you don’t see those same levels of suspensions and expulsions. You don’t have uniform policies. You don’t have students lining up in between classes and not talking to each other. Students aren’t given demerits for not making eye contact.

EduShyster: Media coverage of Question 2, and of charter schools more generally, has turned much more critical of late, including by your newspaper and by, gasp, the Boston Globe. Of course certain editorial fixtures at the Globe have remained true to the *no brainer* position…

77kMiller: Initially the media coverage was pretty uncritical. I think when the campaign finance data came in, you really saw the media start paying attention and asking some critical questions.  The Banner has covered charter schools over the year, some stories positive, some critical. But when Families for Excellent Schools moved in back in 2014, before they morphed into Great Schools Massachusetts, it prompted me to take a closer look at what was happening in Boston. It was really difficult to understand who they were and why they were here. They had a big rally at Faneuil Hall, where they announced that there are 77,000 students in failing schools in Massachusetts. Everybody was wearing t-shirts. They all had hand-lettered signs written in the same handwriting. There was staging and lighting—it looked very much like an astroturf event. I asked the guy who was heading FES at the time what they were going to ask of the legislature and he had no definite answers beyond *we just want every student to have a shot at an excellent education.* We’ve gotten complaints from Great Schools Massachusetts that our coverage is biased, but there’s been so much to write about. And there have been so many *astroturf* elements to this campaign that it makes you want to look deeper and ask more questions.

EduShysterThe Question 2 campaign has unfolded in some really surprising ways. I never would have predicted, for example, that the decision to rely on *dark money* to fund an enormous ad campaign would trigger such a backlash. What’s surprised you?

Miller: Early on, the No on 2 side said that they were really going to push a campaign where they were going to lay out the facts. One of the organizers told me that *when people hear the facts they’re going to be with us.* And I remember thinking to myself, *you’re never going to win that way.*  Facts don’t win campaigns—opinions do and they’re not necessarily based on facts, they’re based on emotion. I looked at the Great Schools Massachusetts ads and they’re really well produced. They have passion, inspirational music, violins, great visuals. And the No on 2 people are basically going door to door. I didn’t sopsthink you could win a state-wide ballot campaign with a ground game, so I just assumed the No on 2 people were making the wrong investment. But I think they’ve proven themselves right. They seem to have been able to get into some pretty far-flung communities and get their message out that way. I had the No on 2 side come and knock on my door the other day. I asked if they were paid or volunteers. They were both volunteers. I asked them why they had gotten involved and they said that they didn’t want to see funding cuts to the Boston schools.

EduShyster: Governor Baker did an interview recently where he predicted that if voters reject Question 2, it will *take the wind out of charter school development.* What does it mean for Boston if, as the Governor seems to expect, Question 2 goes down to defeat? 

I think moving forward though that you’re going to see parents and city officials start to look more critically at charter schools. The story has been that these schools have really good student outcomes based largely on test scores. But people have been poking holes in these success stories, looking more closely at how charter school are run, how they’re managed and finding out that there are many aspects of charter schools that challenge the success stories.

Miller: If Great Schools Massachusetts doesn’t prevail and the voters don’t approve this ballot question, they have to wait another five years before they can bring a similar question to the ballot. There’s still a lawsuit that charter expansion proponents have filed against the state calling for a lift of the cap. It’s an interesting situation where the plaintiffs are pushing for charter expansion and the defendants are also in favor of lifting a cap. I think moving forward though that you’re going to see parents and city officials start to look more critically at charter schools. The story has been that these schools have really good student outcomes based largely on test scores. But people have been poking holes in these success stories, looking more closely at how charter school are run, how they’re managed and finding out that there are many aspects of charter schools that challenge the success stories. You’re also going to see people take a much more critical look at the Boston Compact, which is an agreement between charter schools and district schools to work more closely together. People don’t want to see the existing district schools, some of which are struggling, some of which are doing remarkably well, harmed by charter expansion. And it has started to seem like charter schools are seeking to expand at the expense of district schools—like there’s an intent to displace the public schools.

yawuYawu Miller is the managing editor of the Bay State Banner, which has been covering news in Boston’s African American and Latino communities since 1965. 

1 An earlier version of this post misidentified Jackson as a board member at Renaissance.
2 An earlier version of this post misidentified Walsh as a board member at the Conservatory Lab Charter School. Thanks eagle-eyed frenemy reader for catching both!

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  1. Thanks for bringing that engaging piece to us, Jennifer. Not surprisingly, Yawu Miller is very insightful about the local politics of the ballot question. But I was left with unsatisfied curiosity by this remark “But people have been poking holes in these success stories, looking more closely at how charter school are run, how they’re managed and finding out that there are many aspects of charter schools that challenge the success stories.”

    Here in Boston? Examples? Or elsewhere around the country?

    In specific respect to Boston, when I myself look closer charter schools seem better rather than worse than I might have anticipated. For example, something like this Brooke amendment to an application to operate a High School provides lots of detail that I find positive and persuasive:

    And I think Jennifer came away with some positive impressions from her visit there. The neighbor kids that I’ve talked to about their schools have seemed uniformly positive, whether the school is Kipp, Helen Y Davis, MATCH, Academy of the Pacific Rim….

    In respect to suspension rates at charter schools, it’s worth noting that those, quite broadly, have been steadily, and substantially dropping and, in Boston schools that do have relatively high suspension rates, indications are that students seem relatively eager to show up at school, and stay there. There seems to be, if anything, an inverse correlation between suspension and either attrition or unexcused absences.

    “Boston Charters Have Better Stability, Attendance, Unexcused Absence and Dropout Rates.
    * Boston charter schools also have a higher stability rate—the rate at which students stay in the same school for an entire school year—than BPS (92.2% to 86.5%), as well as higher attendance rates (95.4% to 92.2%), fewer unexcused absences (19% to 32.3%) and far lower dropout rates (4.7% to 0.9%).

    While Boston Charter Schools Have Higher Suspension Rates, They Have Lower Attrition Rates.
    * Data does not show a causal relationship between out of school suspension and students leaving school. In fact, despite have a higher out of school suspension rate (12.6% to 4.8%), far fewer children leave Boston charter schools than their district school peers (9.3% to 14.2%).”

    It certainly seems plausible to me that there’d be a clear, direct correlation between the kids who are suspended and those who depart the schools. But that really should be studied carefully before any assumption is made.

    When Eva Moskowitz faced related allegations, her response included: “For example, one of the schools mentioned in Mr. Merrow’s report was Success Academy Prospect Heights. We showed Mr. Merrow a printout from our data systems of every single student who withdrew over a two year period. I have attached that report. It shows that of the 21 students who left during that period, only three of them had ever been suspended. And of the 19 students who did receive suspensions, only two of them withdrew. So this supposed link between suspensions and attrition is demonstrably untrue.”

    1. Sir! I am dazzled as always by the speed of your commenting, and the number of words generated–not to mention the way you skip right over any of the big, messy issues that Yawu Miller raises.

      Let’s say for the sake of argument that your fondest hopes are realized: that no holes are poked in Boston’s charter success stories, that all of the children who attend them are happy as clams, even those who attend schools that existed only on heavy stock paper as recently as a month ago, and that even the problems that the schools have never acknowledged having have now been solved. I will spare you the tale I heard just this week from a former charter school teacher whose school had no services available for either SPED or ELL students so would fabricate a “pull-out plan” whenever the state came a calling. The school was north of Boston so practically in a different country!

      Say that all those things are true and all we are left with is a high-performing system that is completely different from its counterparts in more affluent suburbs – from the “culture” of the schools to the way students are taught to the way their teachers are trained to teach them to the way the schools are run and who runs them to who owns the buildings that the students are educated in. These are some of the big messy questions that I think my interview with Yawu hints at and that the “no brainer” crowd seems content to gloss right over.

      I think they deserve our attention, though, which is why I’ve invited the Edulosopher back to advise a voter who is conflicted over how to vote on Question Two. I would suggest that you begin preparing your pre-response now!

      Thanks as always for reading and responding.

      1. Before confronting a hypothetical like that, I’d want to assess how realistic it is. Isn’t it most likely that BPS would continue to improve alongside a growing charter sector, as it asserts it has been doing over the past 20 years (

        If expansion of charter schools were not artificially constrained, we’re all unclear where the balance would end up at at any point in time in respect to in-district and out-of-district charter schools, traditional public schools, exam schools, pilot schools, audition schools…

        But I can’t help but imagine that most families would appreciate an increased abundance, and continuing variety, of high quality options, and would exercise those options in non-uniform ways. With the result remaining a variegated assortment of schools: Conservatory Lab charter, Boston Arts Academy, MATCH High School, New Mission High, Nathan Hale, with and without charters, not to mention Cathedral High.


    I”m watching the latest Question 2 debate, and the pro-Charter guy Mark just made some hare-brained claim that the teachers union’s motives in opposing Question 2 are racist, or — at the very least — their motives are rooted in the fact that the union leadership is white, and their white-ness is driving them, subconsciously or whatever, to oppose Question 2 … again to the detriment to students and families of color.

    Go here:
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
    ( 35:02 – )
    ( 35:02 – )
    MARK, THE PRO-CHARTER GUY: “We have our strongest opposition from the teachers unions across the state, whose leadership is primarily white… our goal, and whom we are trying to serve, are those black and brown parents and young parents who are trying desperately to get alternatives for their children.”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    Yeah, right, Mark. That’s your “goal” … unlike those crypto-racist teachers in teacher unions who only care about themselves, even if that screws the education of black kids. This is in spite of the fact that those unionized teachers are the ones teaching kids of all races and classes — including blacks —- for seven or more hours each day.

    Naaah, only billionaire-backed charter folks care about black and brown kids.

    So if Barbara Madeloni and other Massachusetts teachers union leaders were as black as Karen Lewis, Mark, the Pro-charter guy, wouldn’t attempting this line of argument? No, then he’d probably characterize those hypothetical black Massachusetts labor leaders as an Uncle Tom sell-outs, who value big union officer salaries more than she does helping out her fellow blacks.

    What utter nonsense!

    Thank God African-American anti-charter Tito Jackson was there to immediately counter this asinine attempt to frame this as a race issue, and inflame racial tensions.

    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
    ( 35:27 – )
    ( 35:27 – )
    TITO JACKSON: “Mark, the leadership of the teachers unions is primarily white, but SO IS the leadership of most charter school in the city of Boston, and so I think that THAT is a critical component.”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    Tito then changes topic, then proceeds to debunk the vaunted charter school wait list numbers.


    Think about it. If here were 30,000 – 40,000 people furious at being wait-listed and denied entry to a charter school, because there wasn’t enough of such schools, wouldn’t that mean these parents would have formed an army of volunteer campaign workers swarming the state pushing for passage of Question 2— knocking on doors, phone-banking, marching down streets, etc. ? They wouldn’t need $20 million of out-of-state billionaire money. The volunteer component would be enough to win the day.

    No, there’s nothing of the kind going on in Massachusetts. The pro-Question-2 stuff is all big money commercials, mailers, and robo-calls, not live calls from live volunteer workers, or live canvassers knocking on doors.

    Anyway, back to what Tito could have said to Mark regarding the overwhelming whiteness of Massachusetts charter leaders, as well as those leaders not living in the neighborhoods where their charter schools are located.

    Here’s what Tito could have said, but was said by someone else at the other debate.


    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
    (34:30 – )
    (34:30 – )
    FEMALE MODERATOR: “Representative Walz, for some who oppose Question 2, one of the issues that it comes down to is this, and I’m going to paraphrase Carol Burris, she’s a former New York high school, and she says

    ” ‘The democratic governance of our public schools is a American tradition worth saving.’

    ” … and then the Annenberg institute for school reform at Brown University earlier this year released a study, and they analyzed EVERY board for EVERY charter school in the state of Massachusetts. and they found that ..

    “31% of trustees (school board members) statewide are affiliated with the financial services or corporate sector. Only 14% were parents.

    “60% of the charter boards had NO parent representation on their boards WHATSOEVER.

    “Those that DID were largely confined to charter schools that served MOSTLY WHITE students.

    “Here’s an example: City on a Hill (Charter) Schools in Roxbury — again, this is according to the Annenberg Institute Report — has schools in Roxbury and New Bedford, (has a) 14-member board, trustees for all three of those schools.

    “ONLY ONE member of the board lives in New Bedford. Three live in Boston, but NONE in Roxgury. The rest live in (upscale communities) Brookline, Cambridge, Cohasset, and Hingham.

    “So they (at Annenberg) ask:

    ” ‘How can those charter schools be considered locally controlled and locally accountable?’ ”
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    Charter Lady Walz responds by claiming — and winning applause from the charter folks stacked in the audience — that local control through school boards has “wholly failed’ to produce quality schools and educate children, and need to be wiped out.

    Those in the audience are cheering the end of democracy? Really?

    Wait. Isn’t Massachusetts the highest achieving state in the U.S.? Really? She says that democratically-governed schools with elected school boards in Massachusetts have “wholly failed” students? Really?

    At another point in the debate, Charter Lady claims their group is about improving all types of schools, but here she is recommending replacing all of traditonal public schools with privately-managed charter schools. So which is it?

    The Moderator interrupts by insisting that Charter Lady answer the question about accountability, and Charter Lady brings up the only method needed — the Death Penalty AND THAT’S IT…. but no accountability to parents and citizens, while those schools are actually open, and ZERO OPPORTUNITY OR MECHANISM for those parents and citizens to enjoy any kind of decision-making power over shose schools while they are in operation.

    And we need to watch John Oliver again to find out how well that works out:

  3. I am a bit confused about how Yawu Miller views on the suitability of charter schools for his own children. In answering the forth question, Mr. Miller says, in part, “…And if I had a kid who *colored in the lines,* not like me or my son, I would definitely consider sending him to a charter school.” In answering the third question, Mr. Miller says “I applied to three charter schools for my son, by the way.”

    Did Mr. Miller apply to send his son to three charter schools that he would never actually consider sending his son to attend?

    1. Three quarters of charter schools in Boston are “no excuses” style schools (See Angrist et all, 2011). There are a handful of independent, neighborhood-ish schools that don’t fit with this mold. One of the concerns raised by Mayor Walsh is that these schools, which also have long waitlists, will also be harmed by Question Two, as they have neither the ability nor seemingly the inclination to “scale up.”

      1. Good to know that there are a variety of charter schools in Boston. According to the linked article, even some of the 71% of schools that might be called “no excuses” style schools only somewhat identify as “no excuse” style schools.

        I think that the ability of charter schools to offer a variety of approaches to education is one of the main advantages a charter school system has over the traditional catchment style school system.

        1. Boston hasn’t had a traditional catchment-style school system since busing. One of the ironies of the current debate is that dominance of the charter “scale up” crowd in Massachusetts’ education policy means that Boston could end up with far less choice in its system. This is one of the issues that the Edulosopher will be tackling tomorrow!

          1. It seems that no two school districts are alike. That makes it as impossible to make claims about district schools as a group as it is to make claims about charter schools as a group.

          2. Right, which is why responding to a piece about a specific district with this claim: “I think that the ability of charter schools to offer a variety of approaches to education is one of the main advantages a charter school system has over the traditional catchment style school system” is so silly.

          3. My point was about general advantages of charter schools, not particularly aimed at Boston. Of course charter expansion does not just concern Boston either, so perhaps looking at choice outside of Boston might be relevant to the discussion.

  4. Would be curious to know about Mr. Miller’s take on his paper backing Question 2?

    Also, not sure if a correction is in order, but I think Mayor Walsh was on the board and a founder of Neighborhood House Charter (not Conservatory Lab).

    Also, I’ve seen only a couple of references to Councillor Jackson being on the board at Boston Renaissance, but the current listing doesn’t have him on there and the only references are in the Banner and on Universal Hub. He issued public support for the school, probably during a renewal process last year, but does not seem to on the board.

    1. Thanks for this – it’s a sign of how divisive the debate is in Boston that even the Miller family is divided over this. The timing of my interview and the Banner’s endorsement was a total coincidence, btw, and it certainly wasn’t my aim to have the managing editor undercut his uncle and editor! And thanks for the board update. I’ll correct Walsh’s affiliation (I should have checked that as it didn’t seem quite right) and have an email into Tito’s office about the Renaissance question. I think Miller’s point was just that the issue is far less clear cut than people outside of Boston may realize. I caught a glimpse of this when I met a group of canvassers against Question 2, some paid, some volunteer, and their ranks included a current charter school student and two former charter school parents, one of whom is on the waitlist at a school you know well. So not black and white!

  5. The bottom line is that communities should insist that every child get an equal opportunity at a good education, no matter what school the child attends. This requires a massive reinvestment in public education, not the massive disinvestment we’ve witnessed the last 30 years. That also
    means developing good teachers from the communities they live in and reinvesting the money wasted on tfa. Every child should have enough food to eat, health care, a decent roof over their heads, etc. “No Excuse” is the twisted invention of the privileged and poverty pimps. The whole argument for charters is a red herring. , even if there are many fine charter schools. The real issue is the ongoing 1% ‘s assault on the public and the consequent immiseration of the vast majority.

  6. I find it shocking that in 2016 as charter swindles and test-score debacles are exposed across the nation, so many states yet elect to stay inside their own small worlds and refuse reality beyond their own borders. The charter game is turning into a hedge-funder-pushed bubble and will likely soon BURST, leaving citizens — and so many students — in the lurch.

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