Fed $, elections help push charter school

When Boston School officials tried to save money this year by cutting costs in student transportation, they met with strong resistance from parents who put more hopes in choice, even with the need for a bus ride.

By estimates of the School Dept., the parents who stand to lose from a cutback in choice and busing are a minority, while almost three-quarters prefer schools close to where they live. But the parents who cling to wider choices are a diverse population, and their support for busing as a vehicle of choice has been reinforced by other Boston parents sending their children to charter schools and parochial schools.

“You’re not going to have people give up their child’s transportation,” said one parent, “if their child is going to go to a lower quality school.”

Under a proposed student assignment plan put out for discussion in May, a disproportionate number of under-performing schools would have been in zones that include Dorchester and Mattapan. When officials decided later to slow down the change in the assignment process, Superintendent Carol Johnson asked for more information about school improvement and ensuring access to quality throughout the city.
Johnson’s comments were in a memo dated June 3, the same day another Boston Public School parent, City Councilor Sam Yoon, called for raising the cap on charter schools in Boston. These public schools operate independently of the Boston School Dept., and Yoon wanted the cap to be lifted only for charter schools that were successful.

Within a few days, there was support for raising the cap from another BPS parent and City Councilor running for mayor, Michael Flaherty. The same day Flaherty came out with his education platform, Mayor Thomas Menino announced plans to file state legislation that would allow more charter schools to open, but under control of the Boston School Committee.

The move also comes after a slow-down in the expansion of innovative “pilot schools,” though the Boston Teachers Union has agreed more recently to the opening of additional pilots. In January, a new study showed an advantage for a sample of students in charter schools over students in the BPS district schools and pilot schools. BPS officials argue the study draws mostly on a sample from the best charter schools, but they acknowledge that charters get better results in math for 8th graders.

While some question the state’s definition of under-performing schools, there is still concern in Boston about the racial gap in achievement, the number of dropouts (1,447 students last year, according to the Boston Plan for Excellence). The Plan for Excellence also reports that 56% of the BPS 9th graders were “off-track to graduate” in the 3rd quarter of the last school year, and 26% were “severely off track.” The charters proposed by Menino would be conversions of schools that consistently under-perform.

“Although we’ve made tremendous gains in the Boston Public Schools, I am frustrated with the pace of our progress, especially in our low performing schools,” Mayor Menino said last month. “To get the results we seek – at the speed we want – we must make transformative changes that boost achievement for students, improve quality choices for parents, and increase opportunities for teachers.”

Unlike the pilot schools—innovative schools within the system—the new charters could be set up without approval by the BTU. Each school would have a performance contract, and the plan calls for failing schools to close. The plan has been described as an abrupt shift by Menino, and even as an election-year gesture with little chance of overcoming opposition at the State House from teachers’ unions.

But Menino’s qualified support for alternatives to the Boston Schools is hardly new, given his presence at ground-breakings for parochial schools and charter schools—one as far back as 2001, and another the day before announcing his in-city charter bill. The last appearance was at the future home of the Renaissance Charter School, which is relocating to an old mill and warehouse in Hyde Park with the help of financing from an agency staffed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

When the Boston Municipal Research Bureau took notice of the growing support for charter school expansion, it gave more reasons—the 5,264 students from Boston already enrolled in charter schools, and another 8,577 still on wait lists.

But, last week, when Menino and Governor Deval Patrick shared a podium at the Museum of Science with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, their support for more charter schools was linked with a chance to get more federal money, a nationwide total of $4.35 billion.

Governor Patrick hopes to use some of the money in Massachusetts for additional charter schools that would have to meet conditions for inclusion, especially for English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. The governor also hopes to use the federal money for transforming chronically under-performing schools into “Readiness Acceleration Schools.” These would be under state authority, but they would have more autonomy from local districts, and there would be new services outside the schools for students and their families.

Menino and Patrick have expressed concerns over the effect of charter school expansion on budgets for local school districts, and charter schools have also attracted students who, in past years, might have gone to parochial schools. Menino is still against lifting cap on expansion of the regular “Commonwealth” charter schools, provided the legislature allows the “in-district” charters. Even last Thursday, Patrick said the funding formula for additional charter schools “needs to be looked at.”

According to the vice chair of the Boston School Committee, Marchelle Raynor, there is no redirection of funding needed under the mayor’s proposal for “in-district” charter schools. And Raynor says the schools could be in operation as early as this September.

The mayor’s plan has been greeted with skepticism from the Boston Teachers Union and the Mass. Charter Public School Association, which represents the “Commonwealth” schools.

“We want to make sure that when he creates these ‘in-district’ schools,” said Association spokesperson Dominic Slowey, “there’s the high level of accountability as with the Commonwealth system.”

BTU President Richard Stutman called the mayor’s plan “poorly thought out.” And he described the announcement by Patrick and Menino as “nine-tenths stimulus money.”

By including merit pay for teachers in his plan, Menino has aligned himself with Duncan. When Menino announced his plan last month, he said the incentives would make teachers “jointly accountable” for results in the classroom, and help attract “more excellent educators.”

Stutman says teachers would go along with extra pay that could be shared by a team, but not with incentives for individuals. “It’s so difficult,” he said, “to measure who’s contributing what.”

The governor also faces some resistance to his plan from the Mass. Charter Public School Association. Though he stops short of setting quotas for enrollment of demographic groups in new charter schools, he wants to require best efforts in recruitment. The Association says this could be an incentive to keep students in the categories of English Language Learner or special needs even after they should be in regular classrooms.

Advocates for choice and local officials still argue some types of students are under-represented in the Commonwealth charter schools. And they blame some charter schools for shedding students who either drop out or end up in the local district schools.

“It’s easier to teach a population that doesn’t require special services,” says Stutman. “It’s cheaper, too.”

But a cutback in busing has also been viewed as a way of inadvertently encouraging more parents to choose Commonwealth charter schools. Earlier this year, Boston officials were trying to end citywide enrollment at elementary and middle schools, which they said would make it easier to apply the same restriction to students at charter and parochial schools. That plan has met with legal barriers, as well as opposition from different groups.

“It would be a hardship for a lot of parents to come up with their own transportation,” said Slowey, “plus, it would be in conflict with state law.”

The assistant director for Boston School Reform at Mass. Advocates for Children, Kim Janey, said it would be unfair to continue citywide transportation for students in charter schools while elementary and middle school students in the Boston Public Schools could only be bused within one of five zones.

“You run the risk of perpetuating a two-tier system in the city,” said Janey.

In an interview on Neighborhood Network News, Raynor said the in-district charter schools proposed by the mayor would not require additional transportation.

In his announcement last month, Menino did not specify whether the in-district charter schools could have citywide enrollment and transportation. But, if they did, Stutman says, that “would increase transportation costs by millions of dollars.”