I am voting "yes" on Question 2

by Paul M. Niles, Director of Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School

I am voting “yes” on Question 2 because this is a civil rights issue.

Education in our country has been marked by a too-slow creep towards mandates for quality education for increasingly widening swaths of marginalized populations. Our history of educational legislation and jurisprudence shows a trend of increasing access to our classrooms for minority, economically disadvantaged, special needs and English language learner populations. This is great. Our nation’s educational goals are among the most enlightened in the world.

Yet we have not delivered on the promise laid out by this educational vision. The achievement gaps in academic performance between students grouped by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity have barely narrowed in the 50 years since this data has been collected in the United States. The statistics on standardized test scores, grade point average, dropout rates and college enrollment and completion show that we are not doing right by our low income and minority students, despite concentrated commitments to narrow these gaps.

Except in urban charter schools in Massachusetts, where a 2016 report (http://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/evidence-ma-charter-schools.pdf)  by Thomas J. Kane and Walter H. Gale of the Harvard Graduate School of Education report that the gains by students in the traditional equity categories have been “startling”, including cutting the black/white achievement gap in half in math and by a fifth in English Language Arts IN JUST ONE YEAR in oversubscribed Boston charter schools. And this was a “gold standard” study, comparing students who applied to the charters and gained admission through the randomized lottery, to students who applied but did not get in. The study also reports “large positive impacts on the academic achievements of ELL and special education students”. Another large study, the Stanford CREDO report (https://urbancharters.stanford.edu/download/Urban%20Charter%20School%20Study%20Report%20on%2041%20Regions.pdf) , states that “The average growth rate in Boston charters is the largest seen in any city or state” (across the country).

The criticism I have heard about how charters serve students in the "equity" categories is not backed up by the data. Statewide, charters serve a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged and ELL students, and about the same percentage of special needs students, as the traditional public schools. This is even true in urban-urban comparisons. This criticism may have been warranted 10-15 years ago, but charters have made a concerted effort to improve their recruitment and servicing of diverse populations, with good results. For example, last year 18% of the students at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School had special needs, above the percentage of the composite sending districts.

The criticism of charters siphoning off money from traditional public school depends on your perspective, but, in my opinion, this is not backed up by the data. A study completed by the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation, funded by the Boston Foundation and highlighted in a September 30 article in the Boston Globe concluded that: “What is not evident from an examination of aggregate funding levels over time is any resulting systematic financial disadvantage to district school students in any type of community.” In Massachusetts, the money "follows the child" when she leaves a district, although the formulas for how much money varies depending on where the child goes. For example, when a child leaves for a technical school it costs the town an amount determined by the tech school's budgetary process (usually north of 20k). When a child leaves for school choice only about $5000 crosses districts. This is because a district gets to set how many choice kids it accepts based on how many kids will not add to the school's infrastructure costs. So this money fills seats that would otherwise be empty. For charters, we receive a per pupil amount based on a calculation  on what each sending district spends (minus facilities costs). This amount is diverted by the state to our accounts instead of to the sending districts' municipal accounts. To soften the blow, sending districts receive compensation for children they lose to charters for 5 years (100%/25/25/25/25), but this reimbursement isn't always fully funded by the legislature. For us, the per pupil amounts tend to be in the 10-15k range.

Opponents to Question 2 have tended to focus on descriptions of private charter networks that dominate the sector in other states.This is not the case in Massachusetts, as for profit networks are not allowed to operate here. Our networks tend to be homegrown from urban charters that have had success and have been asked by the Department of Education to grow. The "dark money" from some of the national charter networks has come in to balance out the spending by well financed groups opposing Question 2. Their reasoning is that supporting charters in Mass, even though they are not directly involved, will help the charter "brand" nationally as well.

Question 2 is about urban charter schools. There have only been 2 suburban/rural charters approved in Massachusetts this century, and most of those areas aren’t bumping up against the cap. Urban charter schools in Massachusetts are delivering for minority, economically disadvantaged, special education and ELL students in a way that is historically unprecedented in the long struggle for equitable education in the United States. Urban charter schools in Massachusetts are breaking down the “tyranny of the zip code” that has long plagued education in our country. Finally, urban students have access to some of the same advantages that their suburban peers have enjoyed for generations.

I am voting YES on Question 2 to support the advancement of the long delayed civil right of access to high quality education for all students. I know that this will not solve the problem for every family looking for more from their public education system, but providing greater access to schools with a demonstrated track record of moving the needle on closing persistent achievement gaps is a step in the right direction.

Paul M. Niles, Executive Director and 8th Grade Science Homeroom Teacher

Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School.


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