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Chipping away at charter schools

Posted by Jim Stergios  January 24, 2012 01:25 PM

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Charter school approvals are granted in February. They shouldn't be.

They should have been granted on January 16th this year--Martin Luther King Day--for one simple reason: No education policy change has done more in Massachusetts to alleviate achievement gaps than charters. None.

We too often hear about how education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. The fact is that education was the Civil Rights issue of the 20th century, starting with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the battle to ensure that all kids, regardless of race or creed, had equal access to good schools.

Today, the face of Civil Rights has many colors, and the principal battleground is in inner cities, places like Lawrence, Massachusetts, where district schools have failed the city's children. Failure's not a word that the education world likes to hear. But when 10 percent of the district's largely Hispanic students drop out each year, and when only 30 and 40 percent reaching proficiency in math and reading, respectively, I think we are on safe ground in using the term. That's precisely what is going on in Lawrence today.

So with approvals to be announced in February, how is implementation of the 1993 Education Reform Act's charter provisions and the 1997 and 2010 expansions of charter schools going?

The 1993 education reform act articulated two broad goals for charter schools:

  1. by giving schools greater autonomy while holding them accountable for results, stimulate innovations in public education, and
  2. provide kids high-quality learning environments as demonstrated by state assessments

In 2010, the legislature, Governor Patrick, and Mayor Menino lifted several caps (and imposed some new restrictions) on charters, allowing them to serve up to 18 percent of the total number of students in urban districts where test scores continued to be low.

In 2011, the largest crop of charters was approved. So far so good. But pop the hood and there are some troubling cracks in the charter engine.

First, the charter school process, and the Commissioner of Education's role, has grown cloudy. When David Driscoll was commissioner (1997-2006), he was hired by the Board of Education, which jealously guarded its independence from political interference. Strong leaders in the Senate (Senate President Birmingham) and the House (Speaker Finneran) agreed with Governors Weld, Cellucci, Swift, and Romney to let the Board act with independence. In part they were seeking to shield themselves from the day-to-day battles in implementing academic standards and testing.

The departure of strong educational leaders in the State House left a void, which Governor Patrick, in particular, filled by getting the legislature to dramatically change governance of education policy. In 2008 laws were changed to create a new Secretary of Education position and give the governor the ability to truncate terms and add new Board members (translation: to pack the board).

The current commissioner of education, Mitchell Chester, serves at the pleasure of the governor's Board of Education. His budget is set by the Secretary, Paul Reville, also appointed by the governor.

On charter policy that puts the commissioner between a rock and a hard place, as seen in the infamous midnight email from the secretary to the commissioner urging him to approve the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School's application.

The secretary asked for the commissioner's help in order to keep the Boston Globe and the Boston Foundation on his side politically. The fact is that there are several other recent examples where interference is likely, including charter decisions in Lowell and Lynn.

One-offs? The fact is that the current approval process is much sloppier and harder to understand than before. Do the charter school office's criteria stand as the source of decisions? Is it the commissioner who's calling the shots? The secretary--and therefore the governor?

How does one read the commissioner's announcement, made without any previous communication, that a decade-old charter in Fitchburg (the North Central Charter Essential School) was being placed on "probation"? How is that possible after, as the Fitchburg Sentinel notes, the school

had been lauded by state officials for the school's academic improvements as recently as last fall.

How to make sense of the earthquake that occurred in the education department's charter school office (CSO), where seasoned staff simply got up and left last year? Dramatic shifts in personnel always occur for reasons. And the state's history of having a highly professional CSO has done a lot to distinguish Massachusetts charters from those in other states.

We will have to see how this plays out. The new head of the charter school office, Marlon Davis, brings real-life experience from the Benjamin Banneker Charter School, but he and new staff members will have to get up to speed fast--and demonstrate the quality and independence of their analyses.

And what to make of the governor and the secretary of education's push to direct which specific city districts to target for charter applications? The 2010 education law lifted the caps for all lower-performing, poorer districts. But in implementing the law, they have unilaterally decided to focus last year on Boston charter applications, and this year on cities outside Boston.

Their political impulse is to package charter approvals for maximum press, but that's not what the law says. Short term, what about kids in districts that don't fall into "target" areas chosen by the administration?

Long term, it's hard to see a more opaque, personality (and politically) driven process helping advance the Massachusetts brand of consistently strong charters. After all, here's what we know:

  • Charter schools in some states have a mixed record, often because the state approval and closure processes lack rigor, and state standards and testing are weak.
  • Charters work where state public policy works.
  • Massachusetts charter schools have a far better batting average than those in many other states. By far the majority of Massachusetts charters outperform their sending districts; moreover, a large percentage of our charters perform at the highest levels in the state.
  • For a very long time, Massachusetts boasted an approval and accountability system that was a national model, with objectively determined approvals and closures.

This administration has changed course on key elements in the original 1993 education reform, including accountability, standards, and (soon) testing. Now it is chipping away at our charter school model.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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