Editorial: ‘No’ on Question 2

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Question 2 facing Massachusetts voters has, predictably, brought out conflicting arguments and a blitz of expensive ads.

The key to trying to find the better answer — whether to allow for expanded charter school numbers and enrollment — is to side with the ones making none of the noise but who matter the most: the children in our public schools.

Notice we said the “better” answer, not the “correct” one. There are good reasons to vote either way on Question 2.

The bottom line, for us, though, is “No.”

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

No, and also: Education should not be this difficult, nor this divisive.

We all want the best possible schooling for our children. We also want Massachusetts to remain a beacon for the rest of the nation on public education. Our state cherishes the ideal of opening wide the doors of learning to its children.

Let’s deliver on that ideal by shoring up the district schools the vast majority of public schoolchildren attend. Only about 4 percent of elementary and secondary pupils attend one of the state’s 78 public charter schools.

The Sun’s decision on this ballot question in no way disparages charter schools. Indeed, we welcome their arrival into the state’s educational family over the last two decades, and salute their impressive successes.

While directly helping countless children who otherwise might have languished in substandard schools in inner cities and elsewhere, charters have, by and large, also performed a vital but less visible role. They have stimulated discussion and action in a state deeply involved in education reform for a quarter of a century.

Locally Worcester, like many communities, has had an overall positive experience with charter schools. Abby Kelley Foster and Seven Hills public charter schools have taught local children for 18 and 20 years, respectively. Later a third attempt, the Spirit of Knowledge charter school, abruptly closed after three years because of problems with leadership and a lack of public support.

seven hills_charter

From that failure came the lesson that the agility and self-governance charter schools tout works in two directions. While an underperforming district school will eventually get the Level 4 or Level 5 label, and intervention, if things get bad enough, a charter school can just shut itself off.

Also working in students’ favor is that charter schools must undergo a charter renewal procedure and review every five years. District schools, meanwhile, can continue to operate under sometimes atrocious conditions of physical plant, supplies, staffing or leadership.

Clearly, charter schools have a valuable role in a statewide public school system intent on bettering itself.

Why, then, our “no” vote? We’re taking the long view.

We want our public schools — which includes traditional district schools as well as charter schools — to be united, and behave as if they’re united, around the core mission of preparing each and every child for the future in the best ways we know how.

While we’re glad the public school system includes them in its choices, it’s important that charter schools strengthen rather than fracture or destabilize the system. Unfortunately, the inclusion of charter schools in Massachusetts’ system the last 21 years hasn’t yet matured to this point. With few exceptions, it’s been anything but a friendly, mutually helpful competition between the school board-reliant, union-heavy district schools and the independently run charter schools.

Repairs to this relationship are needed in order to serve the single core mission that does — whether obviously or not — unite charter schools and district schools. Educating children as effectively as possible is the main but not the only feature of that mission. The public school system also calls for fairness to children of different abilities and backgrounds, and efficiency in terms of resources.

Limits, oversight and caution are appropriate to ensure that charter schools serve and strengthen the central mission of the public school system as a whole.

It’s important for residents to understand what Question 2 is asking. It is not a yes-no on charter schools, in which voters answer “yes” if they like them and “no” if they don’t.

Charter schools are here to stay, and that’s a good thing. The question concerns speeding their growth.

Save Our Public Schools website (screenshot)

Save Our Public Schools website (screenshot)

Passage of Question 2 would permit the state to approve — beyond existing caps — new charter schools, or expand enrollment at existing ones, in as many as 12 instances per year. The official summary of the proposal also states: “New charters or enrollment expansions approved under this law would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them, and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.”

Massachusetts currently has a cap of 120 charter schools. The rules for establishing them are complex, but even without Question 2, there’s room in many communities for more charter schools, as their number in the state has reached only about two-thirds of the cap.

Rather than putting more emphasis on charter schools, the more pressing need right now across the state — especially in struggling inner cities — is to redouble energies on behalf of district schools.

Education, leaders at all kinds of schools know, is about tapping and developing young people’s natural abilities and desires to learn. It takes vision, focus, dedication and organization — not just money — to run a school properly.

But money is a big part of the picture, and though district schools receive some state compensation to help them adjust, district schools lose significant dollars when pupils choose charter schools instead.

That fuels bitterness.

It’s dismaying but not surprising that charter schools have been cast as a villain by some teachers union members and others. Part of the reason the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993 brought charters in was to rattle the public school system from the doldrums of underperformance or stagnancy.

There’s nothing like competition for state education aid, not to mention reputation, to inspire schools and districts to improve their performance.

But at the same time, charter school allocations made as part of a complicated funding formula put added strain on already strapped district school resources.

The strain of those resources traces mostly to the state. A report last year by the Foundation Budget Review Commission claimed the state is seriously underfunding its Chapter 70 obligations to public schools.

Alongside the financial complaints — and not helped by the distrustful atmosphere that tends to prevail between district and charter schools — is that educational innovations and strategies charter schools could potentially share with the rest of the public school system are generally being kept within the charter school walls. Part of the idea of introducing charter schools was to serve as a collaborative learning opportunity for the state.


And many citizens suspect, despite rules to the contrary, that some charter schools find ways to to exclude children whose needs can be expensive, such as English language learners and students with special needs.

With all the disconnects between district and public schools distracting attention from what should be the rather straightforward, and inherently positive, business of education, it is not the right time to step up the numbers and enrollment figures of charter schools.

The district public schools, which vastly outnumber charters, are the stalwarts at the core of the system. Many do an outstanding job; the bright lights across the entire system, and the overall performance of our state’s students, are points of pride. But, particularly in the inner city, there are serious, persistent problems in many district schools.

To address them, we need to face the fact that even more important than financial shortfalls are systemic ones. It’s on these that our charter schools might help point the way.

Better teacher training and accountability is a key area to address. School buildings that serve rather than hinder education is an essential matter as well; some buildings in Worcester and throughout the state are a disgrace. Curricula, supplies, supports, and opportunities for increased community and parental involvement need scrutiny. Is the school day long enough? Class sizes too big? Summer too long?

And most especially we must ask: Are today’s students, whatever kind of school they go to, gaining the basic skills and knowledge — math, English, geography, science, writing, history, civics, critical thinking — that will serve them, and our nation, in the future?

These are the kinds of issues we should be talking about.

We’ve heard enough, for years, about schools that lag and pupils who are being cheated of the education we know how to give, but aren’t always providing.

Well-run charter schools have an important role, and we want them to do it well, inclusively, and in a spirit of sharing with other Massachusetts schools ideas for works. We want to learn from, and certainly not discourage, charter schools.

But charters are neither the white knights nor the bad guys. Let’s ask the right questions about our schools and, rather than cast too much faith in charters, address the heart of the matter. The state’s district schools need proper funding, and excellent teachers and leaders.

The most important thing, it should go without saying, is what’s best in the long run for all the state’s children and their families. The only kind of school they care about is a good one. Let’s encourage improvements to our public district schools, particularly ones struggling in the inner cities. Instead of pupils feeling stuck with their neighborhood choice, we must work to ensure that they’re lucky to be there.

No on Question 2. The state has hundreds of district public schools to tend to.

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