WITH THE rising popularity of urban charter schools comes greater responsibility to serve students of all abilities, demonstrating that charters are succeeding because they have the best teaching methods, not simply the most gifted kids. That responsibility is even greater now that the Legislature has opened the way for high-performing charter schools to take over low-performing district schools.
The number of students attending charter schools in Massachusetts has more than doubled to 27,484 in the past decade. Families embrace the longer school day, strong course offerings, and ability to dismiss weak teachers without running into union interference. Some critics accuse charter schools of skimming off the best students. That’s highly debatable, since charter-school admission is strictly by lottery. But it is true that students who can’t keep up with the academic and disciplinary requirements generally wind up back in district schools. And that explains, in some part, why charter schools often score higher on tests than district schools.
In the fall, a high-stakes exercise gets underway at the Gavin middle school in South Boston. The Menino administration is taking the extraordinary step of handing off the poorly performing Gavin school to Unlocking Potential, a nonprofit group. But it won’t be enough for Unlocking Potential to shed its problem students come fall and then declare victory in the spring round of MCAS tests. And to his credit, the charter school operator agrees.
“If a student leaves the school, we’ll see that as a failure,’’ said Scott Given, the head of Unlocking Potential.
In cases demanding the most intensive special education services, a single charter school shouldn’t be expected to replicate the resources of an entire school district. But charter schools should be expected to retain the great majority of special needs students and those whose native language is not English. And for disciplinary cases who are expelled from charter schools mid-year, the state should consider the creation of special charter schools that serve as “last chance’’ placements.
Charter schools place great value on their independence from bureaucrats and teachers’ unions. In keeping with that value, they shouldn’t depend on district schools to absorb their failures.