By Sue Doherty
Delegates to this year’s MTA Annual Meeting made the critical decision to fight this fall’s ballot question that threatens to destabilize our public schools by expanding privately run, publicly funded charter schools The MTA has been working with a grassroots coalition of education, parent, student, and community groups on a “Save Our Public Schools” campaign to defeat a November ballot question that would lift the cap on charter schools.
This push to lift the charter school cap is an existential threat to our profession, our organization, and to the ideal of a democratic public school system that strives to provide equal educational opportunities for all students and that is accountable to local communities. As an educator from Brockton who cares about the education of all the children in the Commonwealth, I urge all supporters of public education to back this campaign.
Charter schools create two separate and unequal school systems while draining essential funds from districts. They are not held to the same standards as traditional districts and can set limits on enrollment periods and class sizes in ways that traditional districts cannot do. And although charter schools claim they take all students, data continues to show that they do not serve as many low-income, special education, or English Language Learners as do traditional public schools. This leaves the traditional public schools with a higher percentage of students who require more resources to educate while concurrently draining their resources. Massachusetts schools are already losing over $400 million a year to the eighty charter schools currently in operation. This loss of funds will only be exacerbated with the expansion of charter schools, and districts can’t afford it.
Creating charter schools and funding them by taking money from the sending public school districts has nothing to do with providing better educational opportunities for families and students. In reality, the push for more and more charter schools is part of a broader agenda to privatize schools in order to maximize profits for investors. The ballot question, which will allow for up to 12 new charter schools a year, is a perfect vehicle for creating a rapid but controlled transformation of entire public school districts to privatized, two-tier systems composed primarily of charter schools.
Our current Governor, Charlie Baker, and his Education Secretary, Jim Peyser, are strong proponents of school privatization through charter schools. Both men came out of the Pioneer Institute, a right-wing think tank that promotes charter schools, and Peyser admires the work that has been done in places such as New Orleans, which became the first all charter school district in the country in 2014. He sees this as one possible model for our state and seems committed to imposing it on a wide scale. In a 2014 article he laments that “only a few districts [such as New Orleans] are moving purposefully towards a diverse portfolio of autonomous and accountable schools, and most of these still have a long way to go before they have fully redesigned their public education systems.” (1)
Under Baker and Peyser, the charter school industry and its promoters in Massachusetts have an encouraging climate for working to “redesign our public education system” by lifting the cap on charter schools. Legislation proposed by Governor Baker to lift the cap and allow up to 12 new charter schools a year is currently working its way through the legislature, but it’s highly unlikely that the Senate, House, and Governor will be able to come to agreement on it. Therefore, the battle over lifting the cap will almost certainly be brought to the ballot box next November, where voters will decide whether or not the state should be able to authorize up to 12 new charter schools a year or add to enrollment where charter schools exist, with preference going to districts that rank in the bottom 25% on standardized test score achievement.
One of the most pressing reasons to support this campaign is that allowing up to 12 new charter schools every year would open up entire districts to charter school takeover in the “diverse portfolio” model being promoted by Peyser. By strategically targeting one city or town at a time, they could wipe out the remaining traditional Boston Public Schools in just six years; Springfield and Worcester in three; Brockton, Lynn, Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford, and Fall River in two; and smaller districts in just one year. Charter schools could also go anywhere in the state and would no longer have any real limits based on “accountability” data. If there were more than 12 applications, the preference would go applications in the lowest 25% on achievement or to places where there is a lot of parent demand. But what happens once they fill up all the districts in the lowest 25% with charter schools, or if there is no parent or community demand? Once the charter school market is fully embedded into the system, they will almost certainly find ways to keep filling it.
Some voters might argue that we cannot approach this issue with a line in the sand and just say “no.” They will contend that charter schools are here to stay and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should push a legislative compromise calling for stronger regulations while allowing for a cap lift. But if we compromise now or shrink in fear and the cap is lifted because we didn’t even try to fight, charter schools will begin to spread like a cancer through our Commonwealth.
The people who would privatize our public schools don’t care about children, learning, teaching, families, communities, equity, democracy, or our careers and livelihoods. They are motivated by money, power, and control. Once our public school districts are finally “fully redesigned” to resemble New Orleans, what will be left for our children and families? Of our profession? Or of community and democracy? Too much is at stake not to fight now. Commit to fully support the campaign to Save Our Public Schools.
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(1) Peyser, Jim. “Redesigning School Districts: The Way Forward.” News + Ideas. NewSchools Venture Fund, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 1 May 2016.