By Rob Carter
BU News Service
Voters in Massachusetts will be deciding on whether to lift the cap on charter schools in the state when checking off Ballot Question 2 on Nov. 8. Supporters of the initiative believe its passage will give more students access to the best of public education, while its opponents raise concerns about how this expansion would affect traditional public schools.
Proponents of charter school expansion argue that the advances in achievement by charter school students should be offered to as many children as possible.
In a 2015 study by Stanford University, students in Boston charter schools had an average yearly academic growth four times greater in reading than students in traditional classrooms. The same study also showed six times greater growth in math performance.
Matt Wilder, of Democrats for Education Reform, attributed the gains to longer school days, teachers having more autonomy, and students being held to higher standards. On top of being “labs of innovation,” Wilder said that charter schools are needed to “give parents another option.”
The results of the study may be suspect, though, according to Katarina Rusinas, a spokeswoman for Save Our Public Schools.
Rusinas pointed out that charter schools “are opt-in, which skews the results.” This means that students whose families are involved enough to fill out an entire charter school application often have a leg up in terms of more support outside of the classroom than their peers in traditional schools.
According to Rusinas, charter schools also “are pushing students out of the school.” Rusinas said charter schools “have some of the highest suspension rates in the state.” By pushing poor performers out, Rusinas said charter schools could make the academic achievements of their student bodies seem more impressive and universal.
“We don’t get to choose who we take,” said Kristine Barker, who sits on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and is a math coach at the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Waltham. “We have to take everybody, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Massachusetts Charter Public School Association refuted the claim that students are being driven out, citing lower attrition rates and higher stability rates in Boston charter schools than traditional public schools, but did acknowledge that suspension rates were higher.
The financial impact on district schools is also contested by both sides.
Wilder, a proponent of the expansion, said state funding for schools follows the student, much the way that it would if a student moved to another town. In addition, districts are reimbursed for up to six years after a student has moved to a charter school for the funds reallocated to the charter school.
Rusinas, who opposes the measure, said the analogy of a student changing towns was misguided.
“You aren’t moving money from one bucket to another,” she said. “You are creating a whole new bucket.”
Save Our Public Schools explains that the cost of a child leaving is actually felt by the district because “it can’t lay off 1/25th of a teacher,” or maintain less of the building, or cut any other fixed cost of operating a school.
They estimate $450 million has already been taken from districts to support the 32,000 charter school students and the passage of this initiative could cost up to another $100 million next year.
The pitch by Rusinas and Save Our Public Schools seems to be resonating with Massachusetts voters. In a WBUR poll taken the second week of October, 52 percent of likely voters opposed the initiative and only 41 percent approved.