What’s the Real Impact of Charters on Education Equity, Accountability?

CPS's charter forum attracted a full house at Madison Park High School. (Photo by Karen Kast-McBride)

CPS’s charter forum attracted a full house at Madison Park High School. (Photo by Karen Kast-McBride)

The crowd that filled Madison Park High School’s Cardinal Hall on January 25 heard a wide-ranging, rich presentation on the impact of charter schools in Massachusetts. Parents, educators and advocates provided a multifaceted presentation on the charter schools, with several unifying themes.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Charters Foster Inequity – Winners and Losers

Keynote speaker Dr. Daniella Ann Cook, Assistant Professor in the Department of Instruction at the University of South Carolina, reported on her research into the transforming of the New Orleans Public Schools into, as of next year, the nation’s first all-charter system.

Cook said school reform is far more than a technical discussion of curriculum and instruction; it is always political, social and racial. She noted that charter proponents saw New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a “green field of opportunity,” a way to wipe away the existing system and put in place something entirely new. She noted that among those wiped away from this mostly black school system were black teachers (an issue that resonates in Boston). The wave of charter schools in New Orleans brought about “the single largest displacement of black educators post-desegregation,” she said.

Keynote speaker Daniella Ann Cook

Keynote speaker Daniella Ann Cook

New Orleans parents are offered a 200-page guide to help them choose a school, Cook reported. Many parents can’t make an informed choice because they don’t have the time. One parent expressed exhaustion and frustration with the process: “I’ve lost two weeks from work at this.” Equity is at risk in such a system, Cook warned. She quoted a charter leader who told her, “It’s a hard truth that somebody’s a winner and somebody’s a loser.”

SPEAKER PANELS: Serious Concerns about Charter Schools Going Unaddressed

Most charter schools fail to educate English language learners (ELLs).

  • CPS board member Alain Jehlen presented data from the CPS report on 20 years of education “reform,” showing most Boston charters have almost no ELL students.
  • Attorney Roger Rice of META Inc. noted that the few ELL students who are admitted to charter schools across Massachusetts are mostly well on their way to learning English. In Boston district schools, for example, he said that 19% of ELLs had been in the U.S. for just one year. In Boston charter schools, on the other hand, just 6% of ELL students had been here for one year or less.
  • Rice also pointed out that even the pro-charter CREDO report (2013), funded by charter advocates like the Walton Family Foundation, said ELL students do better in district schools than charter schools.

Most charter schools fail to educate students with significant disabilities.

  • Jehlen presented state data showing the overwhelming majority of students with disabilities in Boston’s charter schools have disabilities minor enough to allow full inclusion in regular classrooms. Boston district schools educate substantial numbers of students with much more severe disabilities who require more support and resources to educate and are far more likely to score low on standardized tests.
  • Jerry Mogul, a Boston parent and Executive Director of Mass Advocates for Children, said charter schools rarely educate students with more challenging types of disabilities. For example, students with autism make up 6.9% of district school special education enrollment, but only 2.2% of Commonwealth charters – a total of just 17 students with autism in 16 schools.
  • Mogul said, however, that some district pilot schools also steer clear of students with significant learning issues.
  • Boston parent Karen Kast-McBride put a human face on the statistics, describing how a charter school suddenly lost interest in her daughter’s application when they learned she was being evaluated for special education services.

The extreme discipline policies of “no-excuses” charter schools push students out. The students pushed out of charter schools often return to district schools, which have to deal with the turmoil and consequences, often mid-year, just as students are getting ready to take the MCAS.

  • Former MATCH Charter School tutor Barrett Smith said MATCH students earned demerits for any noise making: talking, whispering, greeting, laughing. Smith said that this school year, MATCH teachers, tutors, and administrators have issued more than 41,000 demerits to their 250 students, the result of rules that many staff members find troubling. Smith said too many demerits lands a student in Friday afternoon detention, where about one in five students is punished by being required to sit silently — without even reading — for two hours. (Smith’s experience at MATCH has been chronicled in a front-page Boston Globe article, here.)
  • Parents Cheyvonne Roberts and Vernice Funchess described the devastating impact on their children of charters’ harsh disciplinary practices. Funchess described how her son received many demerits for not tucking in his shirt, forgetting his tie, laughing in the schoolyard. He ended up being suspended for laughing on the school bus. Roberts finally decided to pull her son out of the charter school.
  • Jehlen said state statistics on student suspension rates show charter schools are overrepresented at the top of the list.

Charter schools achieve high MCAS scores at least in part by shedding low-scoring students.

  • Jehlen presented data from a 2013 CREDO report on Massachusetts charter schools that showed charter school students do not show higher growth scores than district school students in their first year. He reported that a CREDO researcher said the higher growth scores for students who are in charter schools two or more years are due in part to the nature of students who last that long, i.e., fewer low-scoring students are still in the charters by this time.

Charter schools siphon funds that district schools need to close achievement gaps.

  • Medford Superintendent Roy Belson talked about the hit to the Medford school budget of $4 million a year that is diverted to charter school payments. He questioned whether charter schools are the best strategy for closing achievement gaps, since charter schools educate few students in the groups that tend to score low.
  • Lynn School Committee member Charlie Gallo spoke with pride about Lynn’s diverse community and school district, including 82% low-income, with 30 languages spoken. Out of a total budget of $118 million for 15,000 students, the Lynn KIPP charter school takes $8 million a year for 800 students, a difference of over $2,000 per pupil going to charter schools compared with district schools. The Lynn School Committee has passed a resolution opposing additional charter schools.
  • Lawrence School Committee member James Blatchford described his city’s unproductive experience with a state receiver who brought in five charters to administer the district’s public schools. A bright spot, he said, is the Oliver Elementary Partnership School, being co-led by teachers. “If it’s a model that succeeds, it  could be an answer to charter schools,” Blatchford said. “Teachers know what they’re doing if you let them do it!”


Following the keynote speaker and panels, there was a wide-ranging community discussion. Audience members asked significant questions and offered a range of ideas about how to address the issues raised. A Boston teacher urged all of us to push for Mayor Martin Walsh to follow through on a promised charter school accountability task force. METCO Director Jean McGuire, and former elected Boston School Committee member, pointed out that we are seeing the consequences of Boston’s lack of an elected school committee. There were questions about how to deal with real discipline problems and how nonprofit partner organizations can help.

Retired professor Phil Wick said there’s a need for a primer on the historical and philosophical background behind our current predicament with charters. CPS board member Ruth Rodriguez said the Latino community must be organized to respond to issues that affect them so deeply. Theresa Perry, another CPS board member, described the way charters control every aspect of students’ behavior, recommending sources of information about the issue.

  • If you’d like to get involved, click here for information about possible next steps.
  • Click here for more resources and information about charter schools, in Massachusetts and beyond.
  • To read and download our new fact sheet on myths & realities about charter schools, click here.
  • A video of the forum will be available soon.