Tip of the Cap, Wag of the Finger

HatTipCartoonIt’s the height of charter cap-lifting season here in Massachusetts, which means that talk of excellence and achievement abounds—along with plenty of wagging fingers (read threats) aimed at those who would dare to stand in the way of excellence and achievement. And things officially took a turn for the crazy this week when the fervent anti-cap-sters at the Pioneer Institute charged the state’s Secretary of Education with *anti-charter bigotry,* a disorder that will soon have its own entry in the DSM

What's under the tam o' shanter of excellence and innovation turns out to be rather less than miss the eye.

Cap re-cap
First, a brief cap re-cap for those who are only now tuning in. In recent years, the Massachusetts legislature has been all but swamped by a wave of love for charter schools so fervent and frothy that its white caps of anti-cap fever were visible far from Beacon Hill. So when lawmakers, backed by an increasingly powerful lobby of charter lovers, their own newspaper and one of the largest community foundations in the country, were set to roll out a bill expanding charter schools in Boston and other cities it was assumed to be a done deal. But a funny thing happened on the way to the charter cap-lifting fête. Lawmakers began to hear from some actual constituents—upon whom they actually depend for actual re-election—about devastated public school budgets, the loss of local control and a growing fear that more charters means dual, and dueling, school systems that educate very different students.

2in1Two in One
For charter champions, the case for the lifting o’ the cap is so clearly obvious that it can be plastered on the side of MBTA buses that are rumbling through Boston as I write. The slogan, Two in One Now, doffs its cap to the latest CREDO study about Boston charter excellence. But *Two in One* could just as easily refer to the two separate—and unequal—school systems that have begun to emerge even before the cap is tipped. Note for example that *The Two in One Now* ads are in English only. At the charter that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dropped by recently as part of his *tip of the cap* tour, 6.5% of students are still learning English, versus 29.9% in the Boston Public Schools, up, by the way, from 17% just a decade ago. 

The ‘d’ word
Much of the increasingly nasty back-and-forth between the charter lobby and the lawmakers who are seen as standing in the way of *operation cap lift* has to do with funding. But the Boston public school parents, representing parents at more than 30 of the city’s schools, who delivered a petition to lawmakers this week signed by 1000+ Massachusetts parents, say that the issue is bigger than just fixing a broken reimbursement system. As one QUEST member told me: *It’s not just about schools, it’s about democracy.* In Boston and beyond, parents and other public school advocates want to know why some voices in the debate over the future of their schools seem to carry so much more weight than others. Breaking: on Monday, March 24th the Mass. Business Alliance will announce its call for a *groundbreaking overhaul of public education* in Massachusetts. Repeat performance Monday night at the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

parccZipcode education
The charter clash isn’t the only edu-issue to be dividing communities and making headlines in Massachusetts these days.There’s a mini uprising among parents, who, with the aid of a handful of school committees scattered across the state, want to opt their kids out of the soon-to-be-piloted PARCC tests, the new measure of college and career readiness upon which the state Commissioner of Education is staking his own career readiness. The clashes are connected. Talk to parents, teachers and education officials in cities and towns and you’ll hear the same word again and again: *overreach.* If you are in a district that happens to include poor students, an increasingly powerful state education apparatus calls the shots. From choosing the kinds of schools you’ll have, to the test-prep curriculum your schools will provide, to the hand-picked consultants who’ll be charged with turning your schools around or taking them over, the state is Up. In. Your. Grill.

Compass_smallAnd now for a little comic relief
Breaking: state education official accused of *anti-charter bigotry and demonization.* I’m referring, of course, to the Pioneer Institute’s SHOCKING REVELATIONS this week about the role of Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Matt Malone, in quashing a proposed charter high school in Brockton when he was superintendent there. I encourage you to savor this delightfully aromatic document for yourself—and to make a drinking game of comparing the claims Pioneer makes about SABIS® International Charter School of Springfield vs. Brockton High School with actual state data. The irony here, of course, is that Pioneer has been leading the charge against the Common Core on the grounds that it undermines state and local control over schools. But two years after Brockton and its residents forcefully rejected a proposal for a charter high school to be run by the state’s only for-profit charter management organization, the Pioneers are still stewing that Brockton had any say at all.

Hub cap
The deadline for the Joint Committee on Education to move on the charter cap and a host of other issues has been pushed back a week and, for once, the outcome doesn’t feel predetermined. There is one thing we can count on in the days ahead though: plenty of heart-wrenching stories about the long odds of Boston students seeking entry into the city’s charter schools. Both the Globe and the Herald highlighted this lucky lottery winner, who is thrilled to have made it into City on a Hill, a college prep high school with a *100% college acceptance rate.* I’m guessing that the student has no idea that, of the 122 students who started at City on a Hill in 2010, just 56 remain. Or that a grand total of 17 boys made it to last year’s senior class, where they had a four year graduation rate of just 23%. The question is, do you? 

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  1. This is the commentary in my local paper about charter schools. The author is of the opinion that the rich are just backing charter schools to help poor children. Anyone opposed(those weak teacher defending unions) are standing in the way of poor children getting a good education. No mention of how some charter schools do not serve the same population as public schools. No mention of how charter schools get rid of underperforming students.

  2. Here’s my mail to members of the Joint Committee on the charter cap lift.

    Dear Rep. Dooley,
    I am dismayed to learn that your committee is considering yet another raise to the charter cap. The charter cap should remain where it stands currently.

    As a former school board member, I have seen first hand how far the imposition of charter schools in school districts has drained school budgets. Lifting the current cap means redirecting funds from traditional public schools charged with serving all children, sending these funds to charter schools that in practice neglect the children most at risk–special ed, limited English proficient, and children who pose behavioral challenges.

    Charters were initially promoted as laboratories for innovation. But the true laboratories of innovation are those public school that show how we can educate ALL children. If charters are useful demonstration sites for innovative education, then surely the seats provided among the 64+ Massachusetts charters are an adequate research investment for the Commonwealth.

    Additional charter seats represent no new opportunity for innovation. They would represent the further institutionalization of a semi-private charter segment that thrives on the financial stress of traditional public schools. If charter schools are truly intended to serve public education by providing models of successful practices, they cannot be allowed to grow so far as to create a two-track system of educational opportunity. Investment rationalized as investment in educational policy research cannot be allowed to tax the financial capacity of traditional districts to such an extent that those districts cannot implement research findings.

    Therefore, I urge you to stop the implacable movement towards charterizing public schools. This not a movement motivated by the educational principal of equal opportunity for all kids. It is a political movement for dividing the public school community. Even if this movement keeps it’s promises, it promises too little–quality education for a few. And if it fails it’s promises, then it has left all children poorer.

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