Debate Continues Over Approval Of 16 New Charter Schools

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Students and parents around the state will have 16 new charter schools to choose from over the next few years. The state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved these schools Monday.

Charter schools are publicly funded but typically run independently of the school district. They have long been controversial because people have seen them threatening teachers' union jobs and competing with traditional public schools for the best students. Now Massachusetts has moved onto a new debate around charter schools.

"I don't see a great kind of acknowledgment and awareness from these existing charters that they have not done a good job with these populations, and have a lot to learn going forward."

Harneen Chernow, Member, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

According to a new law passed in 2010, new charter schools in Boston are required to target the neediest kids in the district — kids in special education and children learning English. To win one of the coveted new charters, a school was supposed to have shown that it had a proven track record of educating these kids.

But some of the groups that received charters Monday have very little experience with these groups.

"I don't see a great kind of acknowledgment and awareness from these existing charters that they have not done a good job with these populations, and have a lot to learn going forward," said board member Harneen Chernow, who raised these concerns at Monday's meeting.

Here's the breakdown for Boston: In the public schools, nearly 30 percent of students in the district don't speak English fluently. But in the charter schools, only a tiny fraction of students are learning English. Instead of 30 percent, the numbers are closer to 2 or 3 percent.

"I want to address squarely some of the concerns about charter schools serving underrepresented populations," said Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. "It's not a perception that our charter schools as a whole are not serving the same proportion — that's a reality. We've quantified that."

But Chester said they have done a good job with the students they've had.

"I'm confident that the applications I'm bringing to you meet both state and federal statutory requirements," he said.

After the vote, some education advocates were skeptical.

"That's a very strange way to do business, we think the law is clear," said Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, a nonprofit based in Somerville that monitors immigrant education across the country. Rice's group has taken a number of school systems to court, arguing that they violated students' civil rights.

"We think they just broke the law. Whether or not that results in a lawsuit, I'm not prepared to tell you at this moment," Rice said.

Supporters of the charter schools see it differently.

"We do not believe our schools have broken the law," said Marc Kenen, who heads the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. "We expect them to be vigilant and we welcome that monitoring."

Some members of the board also vowed to monitor these new schools closely. That's after they acknowledged the problems, but decided to take a what they called a "leap of faith." They said they have faith in these new charters because their existing schools have had tremendous success in many other areas. Plus, they added, mainstream schools aren't doing a great job with these students, so charters should have the chance to experiment.

This program aired on March 1, 2011.


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