The current cap means that the students most likely to benefit from charter schools have less access to them.
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The great Commonwealth of Massachusetts is proving to be an increasingly important case study in the efficacy of charter schools.

Amidst a legislative battle over potential charter school expansion in the state, the Brookings Institute released a comprehensive analysis as to how the current Massachusetts charter school cap in urban areas negatively impacts disadvantaged students. Key to the reports findings is the notion that charter schools can, in fact, improve student performance, so long as the schools have proper oversight.

Passing any test you ask

At present, standardized testing is utilized to both normalize subject matter across regions and increase accountability of teachers and administrators. However, it’s increasingly evident that testing has limitations, and it is then increasingly important to take a more holistic approach that isn’t quite so reductive as a  single test score.

So, while it is important to ensure the quality of a student’s education, it is also important to evaluate the actual outcome. In the case of Boston’s charter schools, they are actually succeeding on two fronts.

Charter students are kicking ass penciling in bubbles with No. 2 pencils. The report states that charter students recorded substantially higher scores on the SATs, AP exams and statewide MCAS tests than public-school students from similar urban, low-income areas in Massachusetts.

Moreover, when it comes to meaningful outcomes, Boston’s charter schools are passing the test once more. Charter students are graduating at the same rate as their public-school counterparts, although they have a higher comparative rate of five-year graduates. Considering these students enter high school oftentimes with severely lower achievement levels, that they are sticking within the school system in order to catch up shows an impressive retention ability on behalf of the schools.

"Boston’s charter graduates are disproportionately more likely to attend four-year higher education institutions than their respective public-school counterparts at 59 to 41 percent"

Finally, it has to be noted that Boston’s charter graduates are disproportionately more likely to attend four-year higher education institutions than their respective public-school counterparts at 59 to 41 percent. Say what you will about higher ed’s trunk-load of issues, but getting students college-ready is all you can ask of the K-12 system.

Accountability and oversight

In light of such evidence, it is easy to wonder how there could be any debate whatsoever about the efficacy of charter schools, much less a state-imposed cap on the number of them.

To that end, the results seen in Massachusetts cannot be considered the norm nation-wide. In fact, the Bay State’s cautious, controlled entrance into the charter school space has likely been a success factor up to this point in time.

The state’s reticence is particularly understandable when compared to charter school outcomes in places like Florida and Ohio, where orgiastic all-you-can-eat’s of public funds have delivered zero return on public investment.

Over the 2014-15 school year, the Sunshine State opened 38 shiny new schools, while also shuttering 35 of them. Beyond the potentially disastrous consequences to students and the overall lack of accountability, the state typically can’t even be bothered to repo the closed schools’ taxpayer-funded materials and resources.

Meanwhile, anyone looking for bureaucratic chaos need look no further than the lovely state of Ohio. There, a grand total of 69 (!) different groups, each with their own unique standards and requirements, are allowed to authorize the creation of new charter schools. This may explain why the 2014-15 school year saw eight schools open, while 13 closed.

With its single authorization board, strict accountability measures and cap on expansion, Massachusetts has closed a total of 17 charter schools since 1997.

A flawed cap

While accountability and oversight have provided the basis for success, the Brookings Institute reports that the state’s current “smart cap” on the number of charter schools has negative consequences that disproportionately impact the most-needy students.

This “smart cap” has prioritized the development of schools with proven success records, but limited the overall number in urban areas – the very areas most likely to suffer from poor public education options. Instead, charter schools are currently able to expand in the suburbs, typically wealthier towns that boast stronger, better-resourced public options.

Effectively, the current cap means that the students most likely to benefit from charter schools have less access to them, while students less likely to benefit from charter schools have greater access.

Our take

A positive, if restrained, track record of charter school implementation provides confidence that Massachusetts is well poised to build upon its success and expand the program.

This November, voters will have the chance to lift the current charter school cap and allow for the annual creation of 12 new schools that will face the same review process and scrutiny as the existing schools.

By allowing the creation of new charter schools in urban districts, the state will be able to provide better education to in-need students, while maintaining its current high standards of accountability and oversight.


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Posted 09.15.2016 - 04:17 pm EDT