The Great Massachusetts Charter Schools Debate

Rachel Slade

In November, Massachusetts voters will decide whether the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) can raise the cap on the number of charter schools allowed, or increase enrollment in existing charters in underperforming districts. If the referendum is approved, the city of Boston—which currently has 27 Commonwealth charter schools that operate independently of the district and educate about 14 percent of the student population—will likely see an increase in charters over the next several years. It’s an advance that charter advocates firmly champion but opponents see as another little push in the direction of a very steep cliff.

How did public education get so contentious, even as Boston’s public school system is near the top on every available scoring index of the nation’s major urban districts? Why does Brooke Charter Schools founder Jon Clark, a quiet, straight-talking guy from Wellesley, become slightly unhinged when I share some of the views of the anti-charter folks? What is it about this debate that brings out the tinfoil-hatted paranoia in all of us?

Ideologically speaking, charter schools—which are publicly funded but operate outside of typical district and teachers union rules—are the muddiest of all political issues, simultaneously supported by neoliberals and ultraconservatives, progressives and regressives, hedge funders and immigrants. For those who favor them, charters represent our best hope for improving education. In fact, the pro-charter movement is predicated on the certainty that public education is in crisis, and it lays the blame squarely on government incompetence and union hegemony. Well-run charters, they argue, not only educate children more cheaply, but also more effectively. The data back that up: The average SAT composite score in Boston’s charter high schools in 2015 was 100 points higher (about 10 percentile points) than the district schools’.

A majority of the Madison School Board rejected the proposed Madison Preparatory IB charter school.