Debunking the Top 6 Myths about Charter Schools

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The Boston Teachers Union (BTU) puts charter schools at the top of their list of “hot issues” in education. The union is strongly opposed to charters, claiming they achieve their impressive results by “cherry picking” and that they drain much-needed funding from traditional public schools. The BTU promotes many recurring myths about charter schools (often drawing on data presented in a report that is five years out of date). The top six are listed below.

Myth #1: Charters “cherry pick” their students.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The law specifically states that if the number of applicants to a charter school exceeds the number of available seats, a lottery must be held to decide who is admitted. The charter cannot pick and choose who they admit.

Myth #2: Charter Schools are not very popular.

The BTU downplays the popularity of charter schools. They dismiss the growing number of students on waiting lists to get into charters, claiming students are counted twice if they apply to more than one school, and that charters do not remove students from waiting lists after they have missed their chance to be admitted. Therefore, the union claims, the totals are misleading.  But according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there are currently over 40,000 unique students on charter school waiting lists statewide. The rising popularity of charters is also reflected by the number of students attending them in Massachusetts, which has risen every year since they were created two decades ago. Considering total enrollment has jumped from 2,613 in 1995-96 to 37,870 in 2014-15, charters are clearly a popular choice in public education.

Myth #3: Student achievement at charters is inconsistent.

The BTU argues that “students clearly show a tremendous range in the achievement of charter school[s].” But in fact, data from 2013 shows that when charters and traditional public schools in Boston are ranked side by side based on MCAS test scores, the charters consistently place high on the list. While the union points to a CREDO study to show a wide range in achievement among charters nationwide, charters in Massachusetts charters are very successful. And unlike a traditional public school, when a charter can’t live up to its mission, a system is in place to facilitate its closure. This process ensures that only  schools that are educating students successfully will survive.

Myth #4: Charters don’t educate low income students.

Charter District Total Enrollment Low Income # SWD
Academy Pacfic Rim 498 272 102
Brooke Mattapan 360 274 34
Boston Collegiate 632 273 112
Boston Day&Evening 368 312 82
Boston Prep 371 323 70
Boston Renaissance 939 758 96
Bridge Boston 146 118 18
Brooke Roslindale 492 383 34
Brooke East Boston 288 218 18
City on a Hill 286 248 64
Codman Academy 194 159 49
Conservatory Lab 312 203 29
Dorchester Collegiate 195 71 18
Excel East Boston 212 151 39
Excel Orient Heights 112 94 12
KIPP Academy 141 121 30
MATCH Jr. + High 494 369 82
MATCH Community 300 250 42
Neighborhood House 399 262 54
Roxbury Prep Charter 716 558 97
Smith Leadership Academy. 243 201 38
UP Academy Dorchester 562 482 87
Totals 8260 6100 1207
Percentages 0.7384 (74%) 0.1461 (15%)
Boston (Public) 54,300 77.70% 19.50%

The BTU claims that Boston Public Schools educate more low-income students than Boston charters do. They argue that this gives charters an advantage and explains why charters outperform the city’s traditional public schools. Such a discrepancy does exist, but it is small, amounting to about a four-point difference in the percentage of low income students enrolled. Statewide, however, in the 2013-2014 school year, 53.7% of charter students were low income, whereas only 38.3% of the public school students generally were low income. Rather than ignore them, charters disproportionally HELP low income students in Massachusetts.

Data from DESE


Myth #5: Charters can’t properly educated students with disabilities.

The union also complains that public schools educate more students with learning disabilities. Statewide this is true. But charters allow parents to choose the school that is the best fit for their child. Public schools often have more resources to offer students with severe learning disabilities than charters do, therefore it makes sense that students with special needs would choose to attend schools that best meet those needs. This is not an argument against charters, but rather a vindication of the theory behind their creation: parents and students choosing the best schools for their needs.

Myth #6: Charters drain money from public schools.

When a student goes to a charter, a formula dictates how much money is transferred from the district to the charter public school. This money is referred to as “tuition.” Opponents of charters say that this process wreaks havoc on public school budgets and therefore harms students. But this claim is misleading. The reality is that Massachusetts has a very generous formula that reimburses public schools when students leave for charters. Starting in fiscal year 2016, the first year after a student leaves a public school, the district receives 100% reimbursement for the tuition money paid to the charter, and 25% of the tuition for the next five years. This formula will help districts adjust their budgets over time so they can better plan for decreased budgets and student enrollment.

Many charter school myths are often repeated by those who feel threatened by true education reform. Polls show that parents and students realize school choice works. How long until the BTU comes to the same conclusion?


Michael Crupi is a research intern at Pioneer. He attends Boston College where he studies Political Science.

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