Written testimony (long)

Written Testimony of Mary Ann Stewart on H.3928
to the Joint Committee on Education
Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, Co-Chairs
State House, Boston MA 02133
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony. For the record, I’m Mary Ann Stewart from Lexington, parent representative on the state board of elementary and secondary education, submitting only for myself and in opposition to H.3928 - the act related to lifting the charter school cap. I gave oral testimony at the public hearing on Monday, March 7, so this is in addition to that (and longer).

At the board’s (BESE’s) charter-authorizing meeting last month, Secretary Peyser commented that for the past 20+ years he’s heard the same arguments against charter schools. We’ve all heard them, too: The problems with Funding. Governance. Transparency. The drain on district resources from expanding charter schools. Questions about the efficacy of charter schools as a strategy to narrow school achievement gaps. The concern that continuing charter school expansion creates a two-tiered educational system.

I submit that these criticisms endure because they have yet to be resolved.

We’re all well-acquainted with the story of how charters were first promoted and then enacted as “laboratories of innovation”. Charter schools were initially capped at 25 schools statewide; fewer than .75% of students enrolled in regular public schools were permitted to be enrolled in charter schools statewide.

Initially, district budgets were able to accommodate the small amount of money needed for this experiment (effectively an investment in “R&D”), because it involved few schools and students and it came with the promise of bringing back replicable practices for implementation in the regular public schools.

That last part - the promise to bring back replicable practices - has never happened. Families and districts, trusted that it would happen, want to know why it hasn’t happened. Yet, charter schools have been allowed to expand in spite of this fact, which has created, and over 20+ years has deepened, an unfortunate feeling of distrust, not only in charter schools and the advocates who promote them, but in the policy and lawmaking bodies who permit and expand them.

Somewhere along the way, charter schools went from “labs of innovation” (that never shared what they learned) to schools in competition with regular schools. When that happened, resources became less available for the regular schools.

At a time when policymakers are asking more of educators in public schools (to better address children’s needs in schools to close achievement gaps), charter schools remain completely out of step, especially with regard to their questionable hiring and enrollment practices and heavy duty discipline policies.

At a time when regular schools have moved from isolation to collaboration across schools and school systems, charter schools remain marooned, apart from any system, apart from transparent practices and public authority. Instead, they’re a collection of “fiefdoms”, each charter school doing something different, out of public view.

But now it’s time to find out. Has the charter school experiment been working? Is it producing results for children of color and those who are economically disadvantaged? What are the innovations used for children with special needs and ELL needs? Is it developing and sharing replicable strategies for public schools?

Until we know and understand the answers to these questions, no charter schools should be renewed or expanded and no new charter schools should be authorized.

We don’t need charter schools to know that the most important resource in a classroom is a highly qualified teacher.

We don’t need charter schools to know what great instruction is or what student engagement looks like.

We don’t need charter schools to know that districts must be adequately funded so educators and staff are able to give each student what they need when they need it.

We don’t need charter schools to know that smaller class sizes benefit both highly qualified teachers and students to establish caring and trusting relationships.

We don’t need charter schools to know that we need to make preschool accessible for more children.

We don’t need charter schools, to know that children need a rich and varied curriculum at school and enrichment opportunities and support out of school all year long.

We know enough right now to know how to teach ALL children. And we know that HOW children are treated matters; to know that classrooms and schools that are too punitive don’t help children develop tolerance, build resiliency, or foster curiosity.

Students leave charter schools at very high rates. Recent statements from the Office of the State Auditor inform of further problems with charter school waitlists and their data. So, something is going on with waitlists and something is going on with attrition rates.

There is something about the enrollment practices of charter schools that create obstacles or barriers for students and their families. Why? What are they? Parents and taxpayers demand to know what that’s about. We absolutely must know what’s going on before we begin to entertain a cap lift.

Proponents of charter schools, Governor Baker and Secretary Peyser among them, are fond of saying that charter schools make up fewer than 4% of all public school students. But charter schools are concentrated in urban districts and the numbers look very different there:

  • 15% in Boston
  • 9% in Lawrence
  • 8% in Springfield

This wasn’t as much of a problem in the beginning with the small number of schools and students, but as the charter sector has grown, resource drain has had more of an effect.
A lift on the cap in urban districts will have a much more negative impact on regular public schools.

Compared to Gateway Cities, Boston is supposed to be the city best equipped to deal with the impacts of the recession. But, right now, Boston is looking at a cut of about $50M to its public schools (plus another roughly $20M because of the newly expanded charter seats approved at BESE’s last meeting). This would result in devastating cuts to technology; to personnel, such as librarians, specialists, and classroom teachers; to foreign language programs; and to coveted, homegrown programs like Diploma Plus, and more.

The Program for Human Rights and the Global Economy at Northeastern University’s School of Law (PHRGE) made a case study of Massachusetts charter schools and published their report in November 2014. They looked at:

  1. Trends in charter school enrollment and possible barriers to enrollment
  2. The use of discipline and exclusion as a means of establishing an appropriate learning environment
  3. The quality of the educational experience of students attending charter schools
  4. The financing of charter schools and possible impacts of charter school growth on resources available for traditional public schools.

The PHRGE report concluded that:

The multi-faceted policy approach that has allowed the creation and expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts has had contradictory effects on the realization of the right to education. While the policy certainly advances the right to education for a portion of the students able to enroll in charter schools, that realization of rights takes place at a cost. The ongoing expansion of the charter sector, along with the accompanying pressure on public school budgets, undermines the ability of some local districts to preserve and protect the rights of the larger group of children remaining in the traditional public schools. School closings, the primary tool available to districts to restructure budgets to deal with charter school expansion, often require devastating adjustments for the districts in which they take place.

Thank you.

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1. Chairman’s Statements on Charter Schools, January 28, 2003 

2. .75% is ¾ of one percent, representing roughly 750 of about one million students statewide.

4. Ibid.

5. The report suggested also looking at teacher recruitment and labor relations, school culture, and financial accountability, to name three.