Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Easy, wrong, vote on charters

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By Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass

This article originally appeared in The Worcester Telegram & Gazette on July 21, 2014

After losing the 1958 governor’s race, George Wallace, then considered a moderate on segregation by mid-20th century Alabama standards, said he would never get “out-segged” again. Four years later, after his election by the state’s virtually all white voters, it was easy for him to declare in his inaugural address, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Five months later, it was easy for him to “stand in the schoolhouse door” and attempt to block two qualified African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

Fast forward more than half a century, and it was easy for Massachusetts state senators to appease the monied interests of the education establishment and reject legislation that would have raised the cap on charter school seats in the lowest-performing 10 percent of Massachusetts school districts from 18 percent to 23 percent of overall enrollment.

It was easy for supposed charter school “supporters” to file poison-pill amendments to the bill, then wait until it was clear that the legislation was going down before casting their votes in favor.

But in politics, what is easy is often wrong.

Despite historic educational improvements over the last two decades, nearly 100,000 largely poor and minority Massachusetts students remain trapped in chronically underperforming district schools.

In Boston, over 15,000 students vied for just 1,700 charter school seats last year. Statewide, there were over 40,000 students on charter school wait lists. For these children and their families, there are no school choices and no way out.

Charters came within two points of closing the 20-point wealth-based achievement gap on 2013 MCAS tests. The year before, 20 charter schools, including many urban charters, finished first in Massachusetts on various tests. Many inner-city charters outperform even affluent suburban schools.

A 2013 Stanford University study found that Boston charter school students are closing the achievement gap faster than any other public schools in the country. Students learn as much from one year in a Boston charter school as they do in two years in the Boston Public Schools.

The study also found that Massachusetts has the nation’s best charter schools. Statewide, charter students gain an additional month and a half of learning in English and two and a half months in math each year compared with the commonwealth’s traditional public schools.

These facts build upon the findings of a 2009 Boston Foundation report that the academic impact of a year spent in a Boston charter was comparable to that of a year in one of the city’s elite exam schools. In middle school math, it was equivalent to one-half of the achievement gap between black and white students.

Charter schools are also affordable. When students choose to leave a district school to attend a charter, public funding follows the student. A recent Pioneer Institute report showed that raising charter enrollment to accommodate wait-listed students up to the current spending cap of 18 percent in the commonwealth’s 17 lowest-performing urban districts would only increase the funds flowing from districts to charters to 5 percent of the districts’ $2.5 billion in net school spending.

Districts would get more than a quarter of that back over a decade thanks to generous state reimbursements for students the districts no longer educate.

Massachusetts’ barriers to educational opportunity were not left here by glaciers, they are man-made. Entrenched special interests with nearly limitless bank accounts lobby Beacon Hill to maintain obstacles like enrollment caps, huge wait lists, and needless red tape that deny educational opportunity to underprivileged children, but ensure the continuing comfort of adults in the system.

In the 50th anniversary edition of “Simple Justice,”Richard Kluger’s definitive history of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal,” he concluded that “America is a colossus of contradictions… justice of any type cannot materialize… without the binding up of its constituent elements.”

In rejecting legislation that would have lifted the charter school cap, the Massachusetts Senate blocked justice from being done and approved the 21st century version of segregation by preventing more poor and minority children from accessing high-quality educational opportunity.

It was an easy vote; it was also wrong.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow of and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.