The Massachusetts Department of Education is about to add over 600 charter school seats in Boston, which it hopes will allow enrollment for some of the thousands of children who remain on waiting lists.
Approximately 668 seats will be opened either by expanding existing charters or creating new schools in the city, says Mitchell D. Chester, State Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education. This is the first time an opportunity to expand Massachusetts charter schools in a significant way has occurred since 2013.
Jeremy C. Fox, reporting for The Boston Globe, writes that through a 2010 state law, as much as 18% of “net school spending” in districts that are low-performing, like Boston, can be used for charter school tuition. Charter school tuition costs have risen more slowly than overall Boston Public School spending, which may reach $1 billion for the coming year – the highest ever.
“It’s something that’s made lots of people send out e-mails with lots of question marks,” said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, co-chairman of the Citywide Parent Council of Boston Public Schools.
The long-standing debate between charter school supporters and opponents is likely to get more heated because of the additional new seats in Boston and the potential thousands more across the state. Supporters are considering a lawsuit and a statewide ballot initiative for the purpose of lifting the cap on the number of independent public schools that can operate in Massachusetts. A legislative effort to raise the limit last summer failed.
Teachers unions and some parents of children in district schools believe that charter schools take resources away from traditional public schools, while supporters insist that charter schools are badly needed as is evidenced by the thousands of children on waiting lists. A spokesman for BPS said the Education Department will work with charter and parochial schools to ensure quality education for all the children of Boston.
“Our mission is to make our schools places where every student receives a top-notch education and is given the academic tools to succeed in life,” said Richard Weir, the spokesman.
Charter school proponents say the increase of seats in charter schools will barely begin to meet the demand. Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman, however, points to the fact that charter schools are not unionized, making the funding of the schools a “misuse of public funds.”
Boston is the home for 34 of the state’s current 80 charter schools. Any additional charters would open in the fall of 2016, say state education officials.
“There’s an opportunity for additional seats that provide very high quality education to Boston students,” said Linda Noonan, executive director of Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a charter school supporter. “Charter schools have flexibility and autonomy that have been shown to be tools that are necessary to respond to student needs.”
The number of students allowed to attend charter schools, as well as the schools’ locations, is decided based on the district’s public school budget. Overall, BPS will face budget shortfalls in spite of having the largest budget in the city’s history. This means cutbacks such as closing two schools, cutting back food services, and restricting services at the district’s counseling center, writes Peter Balonon-Rosen of WBUR’s Learning Lab.
In a MassLive editorial by Gerard Robinson, state education officials in Florida and Virginia, along with a member of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform Advisory Board, state that when the charter debate reignites it becomes clearer that charter schools provide more opportunities to at-risk students. Massachusetts’ charter schools are the best-performing charters in the US, and only about 3% of Massachusetts public school students attend them.
A recent study out of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shows a Boston charter school student’s academic growth is over four times as great as that of their traditional public school counterparts in English and over six times greater in math. Even more impressive is the fact that charter school students outperform their district school peers across every subgroup, including African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, English language learners, low-income, and special education students.