^ Governor Baker rallying charter school activist students at Brooke Charter School, on American Legion Highway, in the Franklin Hill section of Dorchester

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Three charter school initiatives now come before the residents of our state. The newest, and probably most powerful, has just been put by Governor Baker, who yesterday filed legislation that would permit an ANNUAL increase in the number of charter schools in school districts found to be among the 25 percent worst-performing.

The Governor issued the following statement itemizing the points in his legislation:

“Every child in the Commonwealth deserves the opportunity to access high-quality education regardless of their zip code or background, and this bill would help make that a reality,” said Governor Baker. “This legislation puts mechanisms in place to make sure that charter schools are able to – and do – serve more of the students they aim to educate, including low-income students, English Language Learners, and students with learning disabilities.”

“We have some of the best charter schools in the nation, and this legislation would allow more families access to them, while opening up new opportunities for district-charter partnerships on behalf of communities with the greatest educational challenges,” said Secretary of Education James Peyser. “We look forward to working with the legislature to find a path forward and help the students, families, and communities who need it most.”

The Governor’s legislation, “An Act to Improve and Expand Educational Opportunity,” addresses some key components around charter school approvals and renewals, enrollment, facilities, and funding. Some of those components include:

· ** Expand access to charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts: Allows the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new Commonwealth charter schools and/or amendments to increase enrollment annually in districts in the bottom 25% of state-wide performance; these charter schools would not count toward existing caps in current law.

· ** Improve access to charter schools, particularly for high-need students: Allow charter schools to use a weighted lottery system that provides additional weight to high-need and low-income students, as well as students within a particular geographic zone.

· ** Enable charters to become part of choice-based district enrollment systems: Allow charter schools to enter voluntary agreements with districts to participate in district student enrollment systems that take into account parental preference, similar to the “common enrollment system” that has been proposed in Boston.

· ** Create new opportunities for charters to partner with districts in turning around their lowest-performing schools: More effectively leverage the expertise and demonstrated success of charter school operators to close the achievement gap and turn around failing schools by expanding strategic partnerships between those high-performing operators and under-performing district schools.

You can also read the actual legislation at this link : http://www.mass.gov/governor/legislationexecorder/legislation/an-act-to-improve-and-expand-educational-opportunity.html

Meanwhile, a ballot initiative is underway. It would, according to reports — I have yet to see the precise language of it —  arrive at the same result as Baker’s legislation by empowering the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools or charter school expansions a year not be subject to the cap.

A group called Great Schools Massachusetts has formed to shepherd this initiative onto the ballot and all the way to voter approval next November.  Associated with them is an active facebook page entitled “Lift the Cap on Massachusetts Charter Schools.” You can link to it here : https://www.facebook.com/Liftchartercapma This page is the social media voice of http://www.masscharterschools.org/ headquartered in Hudson, MA.

The above two efforts coincide. A third move brings front-line advocacy to the drive : five Boston students have sued, with the assistance of three top law firms, for relief from the portion of our charter school law that limits (and in their case, forbade) their right to seek the school of their choice. This suit is grounded, according to the following legal analysis, in the Massachusetts constitution’s right to “an adequate education.” You can read the legal review here : http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=399d0d3c-62f0-4ea2-b48f-ee4076fd41ca

I cannot tell whether the  lawsuit will succeed, or when it will be heard by the court. I suspect that Governor Baker’s bill will be voted upon long prior and that even next year’s ballot initiative will  be decided before any court issues a finding on the students’ lawsuit.

We have opined often in favor of removing legal limitations on the state’s public school options. I repeat that opinion now. In our mind, the “adequate education” which the state owes students must enable students to be employable by actual employers in the economy of today and tomorrow ; and as said economy required substantial technology skills and knowledge, of many different tracks according the job being sought, so must our schools diversify and specialize, becoming technology skills set schools of as many varying curricula as there are major technology grooves to be entered. This means that classes will be smaller, the school day much longer, the vacation periods shorter, and the optional courses in social life (because social media are crucial to technology networking) far more comprehensive than anything we find today.

Neither Baker’s legislation nor Great Schools’s ballot initiative can by themselves bring about the new education paradigm; but each can help to close “the achievement gap” whereby students of color and from families where English is not the first language now often fall behind. More is needed, for such students, many of them from homes where parents aren’t fully engaged in their children’s education, to master the knowledge and accomplish the skills that students from higher income, usually Caucasian, families reach more readily. Some assert that children from low income or non-English speaking homes simply lack the intelligence or educability of their Caucasian or higher income peers., I vigorously disagree. Such students perform very well indeed in smartly administered schools with a rigorous curriculum.

Implementation of Baker’s legislation will demonstrate whether this assertion is true or not.

Opposition to these diversification moves rests almost entirely with teachers’ unions and their school parent allies. The basis of such opposition ultimately amounts to money. Give us more money, say the advocates of traditional public schools. They point, with truth, to the scarcity, in district school budgets, of money for school lunches,water fountains, bathroom stall, doors, and basic equipment, even pens and pencils, much less laptops and iPads, which in many cases are not at hand either. In Boston the scarcity is such that the district has had to resort to the T to get 7th and 8th grade kids to school.

These truths, however, do not exist because there are charter schools. Chapter 760 of our state’s laws requires that for every student who leaves the district to attend a charter school, the first year cost of his or her tuition be reminbursed to the district and a portion of every tuition year thereafter. How can this be anything but an outright boon ? The district has, let us say, 10 percent fewer students but receives more money than if the students had not left it at all.

That’s 10 percent fewer books, 10 percent less equipment, ten percent less utilities used in classrooms. Where, then, does that extra money go, that does not need to be spent on books, etc ?

Now let us factor in the likely consequences of either Baker’s bill or the Great Schools ballot initiative being enacted. In this situation even more students will no longer be assigned to the district and, thereby, even less district money being spent on books and more. Yet in exchange for less students being assigned to the district, the district receives even more money. Where will it go ?

It’;s not as though municipal budgets shortchange school districts. In Boston in each of the past two years, the school budget was the only city department to receive an increase in funding, and a generous one at that. Where did the money go ?

Teachers’ unions want charter schools not only not expanded but gone altogether. Very few unions are good at reform, much less the sort of transformation now under way in public education. It is no surprise, therefore, that teachers’ unions feel not challenged but threatened — in salary, benefits, and work rules, by schools which operate ad hoc, encourage administrative innovation, pay less to teachers. These unions should have taken the lead in reforming school systems rather than resisting every move; but decisions get made. Unfortunately, by resisting all change except their own, said unions risk disservicing the students they profess to cherish and misapplying the taxpayer money paid over by their students’ parents.

Last night at Sheriff Tompkins’s “State of Education in Massachusetts” forum, two things happened that made clear where things stand. Fi9rst, the audience was packed with teacher union activ9ists who applauded everything said by union president Richard Stutman and scoffed at Secretary of Education Jim Peyser. Second, City Councillor Tito Jackson, who endorsed most of Stutman’s assertions, called for an override, by Boston voters, of Proposition 2 1/2 to “give us more resources…it’s a a question of resources,” notwithstanding the City financial facts that I outlined above.

So there you have it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere