Election Ballot Debate Series: Should Mass. Lift The Cap On Charter Schools?

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Part 1 of our special four-week Election Ballot Debate Series, hosted along with UMass Boston and The Boston Globe

One of the most contentious issues on the ballot in November is Question 2, which would allow the state to approve up to 12 charter schools each year.

A WBUR poll out Tuesday morning shows 48 percent of likely Massachusetts voters oppose lifting the current cap on charter schools, while 41 percent support the measure.

We asked the two groups involved in this issue to offer their representative to participate in this debate.

Miss the debate? You can listen to it atop this post or rewatch the live stream video below:

On charters taking resources from Boston Public Schools

Tito Jackson (anti): “One of the aspects of the achievement gap [is] English language learners. Let’s take for instance Edwin M. Brooke Charter School. They actually have less than 1 percent English language learners in their school. Boston Public Schools actually has over 30-percent. The schools that are actually closing the achievement gap ... need the resources to continue to innovate. The resources that are being extracted are 175 million dollars of the 215 million that actually come from the state of Massachusetts. We need those resources to continue to close the achievement gap and we are moving forward and doing a better job on a year-by-year basis.”

Marty Walz (pro): “Charter school tuition comes from a different section of the budget. Right now Boston Public Schools, as it has in the past, has gotten about 35% of the overall [city] budget. So without regard to the number of students who are going to charter schools and the amount of money that goes to charter schools, BPS gets about 35% of the overall city budget. Right now the budget for BPS for its 57,000 kids is about $1 billion. The real issue in Boston is that it’s not right-sizing the system, so it has enormous budget pressures every year. The system can educate up to 93,000 students; it is currently educating 57,000 per year. So its cost structure is way out of line with the number of students it’s educating. There are budget pressures every year, but the budget increases every the reality is individual schools and individual programs may have their funding reduced. That is nothing whatever to do with charter schools.”

On local control and accountability

Marty Walz: “It is local control that got us into this situation that we’re in where tens of thousands of children are being left behind by their local district schools. The reason charter schools exist is because local school districts have wholly failed to educate far too many children in this state. And charters were created in 1993 specifically to give families a choice because they needed to get out of their failing district schools. The idea here is to get away from locally controlled schools in some instances for charters because local control has led to far too many children not being well educated by district schools.

“So there is a substantial amount of accountability for mass charters. In fact, charters are held more accountable than district schools: If charter schools don’t do a good job educating their students, the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education closes them. Generation after generation after generation of students in Boston, for example, have attended failing schools, and those schools haven’t been shut down. There’s a profound lack of accountability for district schools in this state, there’s a great level of accountability for charters. And that is a strength of Massachusetts charter schools.”

On suspension rates

Tito Jackson: “That draconian discipline pushes young people out, it steals away their joy and zest for learning. Actually one of the schools, Roxbury Prep, has the highest suspension rate in the country: Two years ago, they had 60% of their students suspended. They’re down to 40%. One of those young men’s parents called me, his name is Ajani. He was called out and suspended for tapping his fist up against his chest, which in young black male culture means that he loves his friend. The non culturally competent teacher that he had suspended him. And now, Ajani is at Boston Latin School and has been called to the white house the last two years in front of our first lady and president obama because of the great work he’s doing...Boston Public Schools continues to lower our suspension rates and have restorative justice models that we should be seeing in charters.”

Marty Walz: “If you look at the data, students who attend charter schools are more likely to stay at their charter school than students who attend Boston Public Schools ... Charter schools in Boston are more likely to keep their student for an entire school year than Boston Public Schools does ... You can also look at dropout rate. Charters do a better job retaining their high school students than Boston public schools do. What you want to look out is not the suspension rate, because that’s a little bit of a snapshot. What you look at are suspension rates plus all the other data. When you look at it as a whole you see students are staying at charter schools at far greater numbers than students are staying at BPS.”

On funding charters and traditional public schools

Marty Walz: “The reality is funding follows the student. Right now four percent of public school students go to charter schools, so four percent of funding goes to charters. It makes sense that the funding would follow the student. And the money really is about students’ education. The answer to the specific question of how much is enough will depend on parents. The reason we’re seeing this discussion about the cap lift is parents are demanding access to more charters but only in a small number of communities. Where parents are happy with district schools you’re not seeing an outcry for charters. In Weston and Wellesley and Wayland, and lots of the ‘W’ towns, you’re not seeing a big demand for charters. Charters could go to those communities and many other communities on November 9 whether this ballot question passes or not. What this is about is the small number of communities that are at their limit. Why we’re here is parents want more choices, parents are desperate for great schools, and they’re being denied that choice. So very few places in this state are ever going to be affected by this ballot question.”

Tito Jackson: “The funding follows the child, but the costs actually don’t follow the children. I’ll give you an example. If we were a family of four and David went off to college, our mortgage would still be the same, our light bill would be the same, our water bill would still be the same. Again, this is an unfunded mandate. They could have put forward something that actually brought forward more funding for all schools and looked out for all students. 96% of all students in Massachusetts do not go to a charter school right now. In addition, there are 43 more charters that are on the table right now and 3,000 open, unfilled seats in the city of Boston. We should be looking for help for all students and elevating students as a whole rather than choosing and picking winners and losers.”

On improving long term academic performance for low income, minority students

Tito Jackson: “We’ve learned a lot from charter schools, [like] extended school day, which is one thing we’ve adopted. We’ve also adopted autonomies at the school site level ... My question back to those charters is what are you learning from Boston Public Schools? Are you learning how to take care of special education students? Are you learning how to take care of those homeless students we take? And, as noted, charters don’t even take schools to back-fill the seats they currently have. In addition, they don’t take students in the middle of the year like the Boston Public Schools. So what I would say to them is it’s absolutely critical that we make sure we have enough funding for every single student.”

On Boston Public Schools' budget

Tito Jackson: “Every single budget goes up. From 1630 until now we’ve actually had additional funding for education. The real underlying issue is that if we open this hole — and again, I’m not against charters, I’m actually on the advisory board for a charter school — but the issue here is that this is an unfunded mandate. If you open up the door of 12 additional schools on an annual basis then you take more funding from the district schools that are working with the most vulnerable students. We have 4,000 homeless students that are in BPS, they need that help.

“The City didn’t step up and fill that full gap. In fact, we have four high schools that don’t have librarians this year. We have additional students in autistic classes and for our most vulnerable students, who are our trauma students...we have less support for them. We have less counselors, less social workers. So we actually are doing what we have to do right now but we are not serving the young people at the rate we should be serving them. We’re turning our back on them.”

Marty Walz: “This is what cities and towns do, they have to make choices about how their resources are allocated across their budget. I give Boston incredible credit for making sure that approximately 35% of every budget goes to Boston Public Schools. We in Boston prioritize education. What’s happening in the charter schools is not affecting the BPS budget. And I want to make an observation here about the amount of resources available for Boston. Boston spends more per pupil than any of the 100 largest school districts in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The real question is how is Boston spending its resources? It’s not a lack of money writ large in the entire city, it’s how we’re allocating the money. And that’s the conversation that we need to be having in the city. Would everyone like more money for public schools in the city of Boston? Of course we would. But like households and everyone we have to make difficult choices. Boston’s prioritizing its public schools at the same time we’re also educating more kids in charters. The answer is we need to improve Boston Public Schools and we need to get kids off the charter school waitlist.”

On charters affecting Boston’s bond rating

Tito Jackson: “With this unfunded ballot question, we could be at a place where the city of Boston loses its AA bond rating. Because when we run out of our state funding what could actually happen is we could be in a situation where the city of Boston will be taking our general fund money to send over to charter schools... Moody’s has spoken to this and put out an advisory on this that charters growing at too fast a rate could have catastrophic effects on a budget.”

Marty Walz: “It makes it sound like the money that comes from the state to educate children somehow belongs to Boston Public Schools and they get to keep it, as opposed to this is money allocated from the state to educate children in public schools, both district schools and charter schools. The City Council and the Mayor have a duty to all children to educate them, and that’s what the state funding is for. It’s not just to go to BPS and fund its bureaucracy. This is about educating kids in public schools no matter where they want to go to school.”

On money flowing in support of Question 2 from out of state

Marty Walz: “We’re delighted when anybody wants to step up and support our efforts to support great public schools in Massachusetts, whether they’re district schools or charters schools...We do extraordinary work in our charter schools here, we are a national model, and it’s not surprising that people around the country are paying attention to us. I would also note, if we want to get into sources of money, the “Vote No” campaign is also being funded by out-of-state money as well. So I’m not really sure this is where the debate should be happening. I think the debate really should be about who‘s doing the best job educating children as opposed to the adult concerns about who’s donating to the campaign. I think we should be about kids, not the adults.”

On standardized test scores

Tito Jackson: "Charters have pushed this 'over-testing' piece. So let’s look at actual outcomes ... the study says do charters actually increase graduation rates? Perhaps surprisingly the table suggests that not. In fact charter attendance reduces the likelihood that a student graduates on time by 12.5 percentage points a statistically significant effect. Charters reduce the four-year retention rate more for boys than for girls. When we’re talking about opportunities and equity for young black and Latino boys we need to be sure we’re focusing there."

On state reimbursements

Marty Walz: "The state has sent approximately 1 billion dollars back to districts to help ease transition when students to go to charters to help them readjust. What we’re seeing is some districts are not making adjustments they need to make due on enrollment. When students go to tech school, funding follows the student. When students go to METCO, funding follows the students. What’s really going on here is teachers unions are funding a campaign against charter schools because they don’t want the competition. So you don’t hear teachers union complaining when kids go to a voc tec school, or get into a METCO program. So I think we need to be honest about the fact of what’s really going on here when it comes to student funding and what’s underneath some of these complaints."

Tito Jackson: "The METCO program actually has an annual appropriation. Those dollars do not come from students in public schools. And the difference with the METCO program is the METCO program actually was voted on by each city and town that actually has it, again, respecting the local cotnrol that we should have over our schools."

On the NAACP resolution for a moratorium on charters

Marty Walz: "The reality is that’s a national organization looking at charters across the country. Our charter sector here is extremely different than what you see in other states. The head of the NAACP in New England said Mass. charter schools are among the best if not the best in the country. This is about us, in Massachusetts. What’s going on in the other 49 states, that’s someone else’s concern. The voters in Massachusetts need be concerned with Massachusetts kids. Eighty-three percent of all kids in Boston charters are black or Latino and it reflects the population in our city. And those are the kids being left behind and the NAACP should be about lifting up all families, not cherry picking data."

Tito Jackson: "It should be noted that Juan Cofield, who was just quoted, who heads New England branch, is actually against question 2. He’s the lead sponsor against it. BLM is also on that side. Interestingly the Mass Municipal Association as well as nearly 100 school committees and countless number of city councils across the state are on this side. If this would actually help they would not be on the no on 2 side."


Marty Walz, former state representative and former chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee. She authored the 2010 education reform law and tweets @MartyWalzAssoc. She’s representing Great Schools Massachusetts, which proposed the ballot initiative to increase the cap on charter schools and tweets @GreatSchoolsMA.

Tito Jackson, Boston city councilor. He tweets @titojackson. He’s representing Save Our Public Schools, which opposes the ballot question and tweets @SOPublicSchools.

Future Debates

--Tuesday, Sept. 20 – Question 3: would regulate the treatment of farm animals
--Tuesday, Sept. 27 – Question 1: would allow for an additional slots parlor
--Tuesday, Oct. 4 – Question 4: would legalize the recreational use of marijuana

This article was originally published on September 13, 2016.

This program aired on September 13, 2016.


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Kathleen McNerney Senior Producer / Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney was the senior producer/editor of Edify.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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