MetroWest Daily News: Chieppo and Gass: More charter schools to close the education gap

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Chieppo and Gass: More charter schools to close the education gap

By Charlie Chieppo and Jamie Gass/Guest columnists
Posted Feb 10, 2013 @ 12:23 AM

It’s easy to become desensitized to the plight of students in our lowest-performing school districts. We routinely read about the latest efforts to turn around a failing school or, as in Lawrence, an entire district. But the problem never seems to go away. One stark fact should reinvigorate concern for the students who toil in the 29 school districts that rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide: They account for nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts’ public school population. That’s why recently filed state education reform legislation that would eliminate all caps on charter school expansion in the lowest-performing school districts is so important. Even after years of high unemployment, thousands of Massachusetts jobs go unfilled because candidates lack the skills employers need. Imagine what the economic impact would be if 250,000 largely poor and minority students got the education they need to close the skills gap. Massachusetts charter schools are proving it can be done. They dramatically outperform their district counterparts and a number of urban charters outscore even affluent suburban schools. They also have higher college acceptance and graduation rates than the districts from which their students come. Last year, 24 charter schools – many of them in places like Boston and Lawrence – scored first in the commonwealth in various MCAS tests and academic improvement ratings. State data shows that they are also effective at closing race- and income-based achievement gaps. Parents certainly recognize their success. Almost 30,000 students attend charters in Massachusetts; another 45,000 are on wait lists to get in. Nearly 80 percent of those still waiting live in the 29 lowest-performing districts the new legislation targets. In 2010, the cap on students who can attend charter schools in districts that are in the bottom 10 percent statewide was doubled from 9 to 18 percent of total district enrollment. Three years later, more than half those districts have either hit the new cap or have room for just one more charter. Charter schools are also becoming more involved in efforts to turn around failing schools. But even the sizable roles five charter operators have been given in the Lawrence turnaround effort will touch just 1,000-to-1,500 students in a district of 13,000. Allowing for more high-quality charter schools to open in our highest-need areas is clearly the most effective strategy we currently have for educating underprivileged kids. The main argument against charter schools has always been that they drain money from district schools. But changes to the commonwealth’s charter funding formula now make it a difficult argument to make with a straight face. When a student leaves to attend a charter school, the district s/he leaves is fully reimbursed in the first year. For each of the next five years, the school district receives a 25 percent reimbursement. By the time reimbursements finally end, the school district has received more than double its money back for a student who left six years ago. And under Massachusetts’ progressive K-12 education funding formula, the commonwealth picks up most of the tab in the 29 districts the legislation targets. With the futures of hundreds of thousands of students at stake, exercising anything less than the best options at our disposal to help families in places like Lowell, Springfield, Lawrence, Holyoke and Fall River is morally unacceptable. And if you’re not moved by that argument, just think what the state economy would look like if we could fill thousands of job vacancies across Massachusetts with qualified, home-grown talent.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. Read more: Chieppo and Gass: More charter schools to close the education gap – Millis, MA – Wicked Local Millis