Shrinking Possible

How did the vision of what’s possible get so small?


While this Tweet from former school chancellor Joel Klein refers to NYC, he could mean any number of cities where pitched battles over charter schools have raised a complicated question:  Who exactly is a progressive when it comes to education?

Fierce fight
Take Boston, a city embroiled in a fierce fight over whether to raise a state cap limiting the amount of money that can be diverted from public schools to pay for privately-run charter schools. The dispute pits the teachers union pledgeagainst charter advocacy groups, and families (overwhelmingly black and brown) who want more charters against other families (often middle class and white) who fear that continued charter expansion will mean the death of the existing system.

But the story has begun to depart from this familiar narrative. Civil rights leaders like Mel King are joining the chorus of charter critics. At a recent hearing at the Statehouse, the 87-year-old King told members of the Education Committee that charter schools fall far short of what he calls the *Pledge of Allegiance* test. He said:

*If the solution is only meant for a few kids, and all the rest of the kids are left out, where is the liberty and justice for all?*

Bigger vision
When I spoke with King recently, I found it striking just how much bigger and more comprehensive his demands are than the *access to high quality seats* vision held by charter school advocates.

charter*It’s about a community having control of its resources and allocating those resources in a way that most of the children can access them,* said King. For him, charter schools aren’t a radical departure from the city’s rigidly hierarchical education system. They’re a continuation of that tradition. *If you start out with a system where only a portion of the students get the resources, you’re saying ‘these are the kids we think can make it.’*

In Boston, the highly charged debate over charter expansion is most often pitched in terms of numbers: test scores, waiting lists, impossible budgets. At its heart, though, lies a far larger question: How to confront the systemic racism and structural economic inequality that lingers four decades after forced busing ripped the city apart (and in some neighborhoods seems deeper than ever)?

Reproducing inequity
UMNUntil that question is addressed Boston’s schools will continue to reproduce inequity, says Donna Bivens, who directs the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project for the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. *Charter schools don’t get at the root causes, the policies, powers, and values behind the lack of equity for Black children and other children of color in this city,* she says.

Shrinking possible
A view of charter schools as a *progressive* fix for inequity and inequality stems from a very limited vision of what’s possible. This was on vivid display in a recent Boston Globe op-ed that posed the freighted question: in schools, can separate be equal?

Can separate be equal?
Writer Farah Stockman tells the story of the Edward Brooke charter in Mattapan where an all-minority student body posts some of the highest test scores in the city. Stockman skims over the fact that Brooke’s teachers are overwhelmingly white in a city where demands for a more representative teaching force date back decades. She doesn’t mention that minority boys with special needs, who are punished disproportionately in the Boston Public Schools, seem to fare even worse here. Instead, she dwells briefly on the question of whether it matters that a mere 5% of the students at Brooke are still learning English compared to nearly 30% in the Boston Public schools. Stockman concludes that it doesn’t because, after all, there are other schools that serve small numbers of English Language Learners. As for what will happen to the rest of those students, she doesn’t bother to say.

Elimina el Límite
When Charlie Baker, the new Republican governor of Massachusetts, announced recently that he was filing legislation aimed at lifting the state charter cap—part of an extraordinary coordinated effort that includes a ballot initiative and a civil rights lawsuit—Edward Brooke in Mattapan was the school he selected for his backdrop. He held his press conference surrounded by a sea of Brooke students holding signs that read Elimina el Límite. *Lift the Cap.*

Should the issue end up on the ballot in 2016, as seems increasingly likely, voters will be weighing in on a question far larger than whether to raise the charter cap. The vote will also be a referendum on the vision for public education in Massachusetts, the state that started it all. Can the dream of democratically controlled public schools that serve all kids finally be realized, or are we scaling that vision back to something much, much smaller?

This piece appeared originally on The Progressive. Contact Jennifer at

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  1. “*Charter schools don’t get at the root causes, the policies, powers, and values behind the lack of equity for Black children and other children of color in this city,* she says.”

    Yeah, that’s what a lot of us have been saying for years now. But since we’re white, I guess that was racism.

    1. Wow – I’m amazed that your critique of charters didn’t get more traction… This seems to be a theme in your comments, here and elsewhere, and I’m curious about where you see all this going. I see the developments I wrote about in Boston as promising, even if lots of really hard conversations lie ahead. But I read comments like this and I’m appalled, and really discouraged…

    2. And to add to your comment, Dienne (spot-on, as always), saw a number of charter school kids protesting the closing of their Chicago charter school (one of a # being closed for “poor performance”). Plus–UNO is in grave financial trouble (is anyone surprised?!), & may have to close one or more of its campuses.
      & just where does that leave their students & parents?
      Oh, well, just collateral damage…to “other people’s children.”

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