Massachusetts charter school critics launch opposition campaign
BOSTON >> Armed with financial figures and emotional appeals, charter school opponents took aim at what they described as a two-tiered educational system as they gathered on the Statehouse steps Tuesday to formally launch an organized effort against a charter expansion ballot question.
Calling on policymakers to ensure that education resources serve the needs of the broadest group of students, members of the Campaign to Save Our Public Schools presented an argument against charter schools centered around the diversion of funds from public schools, the potential effects of strict discipline policies at charter schools and a lack of control afforded to school committees and local officials.
"What we are faced with now is an expanding dual school system, and as Brown v. the Board of Education told us, a dual school system is inherently unequal," said campaign chair Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. "The proponents of charter schools don't even suggest that it's equal, and that's a real problem for society. We'd be much better off if those who are promoting charter schools, the administration and the legislators, spent more time attempting to and solving the problems that may exist with traditional public schools."
The campaign stands in opposition to the coalition Great Schools Massachusetts, which is backing a ballot question that would expand the state's system of charter public schools by allowing the authorization of up to 12 new charters in a year. Supporters of the initiative and similar legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker often point to a state figure of 34,000 students on charter school waitlists as evidence of high demand the current system cannot meet.
As supporters of charter schools and district schools have clashed over the best way to serve high-needs students, including those from low-income families, with special needs or who are learning English, both sides have deployed the argument of dual school systems.
"In Massachusetts today, we really have two school systems: a world-class system for affluent, mostly white families who live in the suburbs, and another for low-income students of color who live in our cities," a group of 80 Latino leaders from across the state wrote in a recent letter to legislators.
Low-income students of color in urban areas make up "almost all" of charter school waiting lists, the letter said.
Charter critics contend that disparity exists between charter and district schools, which they say are placed under financial strain when education funds follow students who transfer to charter schools.
Franklin kindergarten teacher Donna Grady said that $4 million dollars that would have otherwise gone to her district is instead going to charter schools, a sum of money she said would let the district hire 80 to 100 more teachers or 100 to 120 educational assistants.
"Imagine how the children would benefit from the addition of 100 more adults to support them, help them grow as learners, and guide them toward the brightest future they all deserve," Grady said.
The Worcester City Council last week adopted a stance against lifting the cap on charter schools, council member Khrystian King said, referencing the $24.8 million that goes to charter schools serving Worcester students and a need to improve infrastructure at the city's district schools.
Other speakers at the press conference announcing the campaign included Citizens for Public Schools Executive Director Lisa Guisbond and Marlena Rose of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. Representatives of the state's top teachers unions — which have each vocally opposed charter expansion — were also present.
Rose, a Boston mother and activist, said her daughter did not succeed in a charter school because of "what was for her an unbearable discipline system that shamed and embarassed her and her friends."
"What I know today is that believing the hype about charter schools and the support they claim to provide caused me to place my child in the worst school in the state in terms of suspension and expulsion," Rose said. "To this day, I feel like I placed my child in emotional harm's way because she eventually shut down in the charter environment. To this day, I feel pain because of my decision."
Great Schools Massachusetts responded to the launch of the opposition campaign with a pledge to keep fighting for charter expansion.
"Here are the facts: charter schools are public schools, created by law 23 years ago to provide educational choices and opportunities to Massachusetts' families, particularly those in underserved communities," spokeswoman Eileen O'Connor said in an emailed statement. "Great Schools Massachusetts will continue to press for urgent action for the 34,000 children on stuck on waitlists to attend a public charter school, who are shut out of great public schools by an arbitrary, outdated, and unfair cap."
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