Mayor wants right to turn as many schools as he wants into charter schools

Mayor Menino plans to ask the state legislature for permission to eliminate the current limit on BPS charter schools - which could mean ceding day-to-day operations to private non-profit groups - and give them the right to serve only particular zones, rather than having to accept students from across the city.

In a sweeping proposal that would also let the city extend hours and and send more resources to schools that are only almost failing, the mayor proposes requiring all charter schools - including those not overseen at all by the city - to set aside seats for students with disabilities and students whose first language is not English. He says this would "level the playing field" between city schools and private charter schools.

"For years, I've worked with my partners on Beacon Hill to advance important education reforms and it's time again to push the envelope when it comes to education reform in Massachusetts," Menino said in a statement.

Menino would require legislative action to create more "in-house" charter schools, such as the UP Academy Charter School of Boston, which is run by a non-profit group that is being given control of the Marshall School in Dorchester, with the promise of longer school days and higher standards. The proposed legislation would also remove Boston Teachers Union say on their charter renewals.

His proposal would also give the city the ability to send extra help to and set longer hours at more schools than currently allowed - from deeply troubled schools to moderately troubled schools. About half the city's schools would fall into this new category.



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Wow. Did not expect him to come out that strongly in support of charters.

That said... is it really such a bad idea? Charters in general aren't much of an upgrade over public schools, but charters in Boston are a huge success. I'm obviously biased since my wife is the principal at one of them, but take a look at the top MCAS schools in the state. They're not in Wellesley or Carlisle, they're in Boston, serving 90% free-or-reduced-lunch populations.

Here we go...

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And as a spouse of a Boston Public School teacher, I disagree completely. In my opinion, charter schools are the main reason BPS is getting worse, not better. Charter schools don't have to accommodate special education students or students with disabilities and can get rid of students that under perform, thereby making their test scores look better. Where do all of these students that charter schools don't accommodate go? To the public schools. So, of course public school test scores are going to be worse.

To back up my point, let's look at the Edward Brooke Charter School which claims to have some of the best numbers in the state. Start with the 5th grade in 2009:

The number of students tested is 46. As you follow that class the next three years, the class size gets smaller and smaller. In 2010, there are 37 students in 6th grade. In 2011, there are 25 students in 7th grade. In 2012, there are 22 students in 8th grade. Something seems fishy here. Half of the students are gone now...why? I'd like to know why the class size isn't remaining relatively constant. Is the school getting rid of or encouraging under-performing students to stay back or move to another school? How would the test scores look for say, 460 students or 4600 students?

Compare that to Boston Public in general for same time period:

In 2009, 5th grade size tested == 3799
In 2010, 6th grade size tested == 3581
In 2011, 7th grade size tested == 3830
In 2012, 8th grade size tested == 3751

The trend is a lot different and the number of students tested is a lot higher. If I could pick the top 1% from Boston Public and compare to a charter school, would there be any difference? Probably not. Public schools can't get rid of students that make their numbers look bad.

Adding more and more charter schools isn't going to solve the problem of poor test scores in public schools. Although I'm all in favor of requiring charter schools to accommodate the same set of students that public schools must teach to (non-English speaking, disabled/special-ed, under performing).

7th grade drop

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without knowing why the students left, you just can't make those kind of assumptions. I'd be willing to bet at least some of the drop between 6th and 7th grade is students leaving for the exam schools.

No conspiracy

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As I understand it, a lot of kids leave the Brooke in the upper grades because they've gone to exam schools and other higher grade school options. The school has cleared planned for that as there are fewer upper level classrooms as compared to the k-5 class rooms. Are they supposed to have 4 seventh grades because they have 4 second grades? Are they supposed to keep kids from leaving for Boston Latin?

If the Brooke was constantly kicking out kids who are not able to cut it, then there would have to be a fairly steady influx of new students into the school. However, the waitlist is long at the Brooke and moves very, very slowly, so I don't see any evidence that they are actually filtering out the kids that don't meet the Brooke's goal in order to look good.

Follow up question

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Why did you ignore the 3rd grade data where the Brooke has a larger student body, comparable to most BPS elementary and K-8 schools?

I don't think charter schools are the only answer for the BPS and I don't think all charter schools are equal, but you seem to make broad condemnations off of cherry picked data. We're already spending more money per student than most places and it's not working. The BPS and BTU are not free of blame here.

So Charters Were Started to Make Schools Worse?

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Boston's public schools were bad when charters started. That is why charters were introduced - to give parents an option of using their tax dollars to educate their children other than through BPS. BPS had plenty of time before charters were introduced to improve itself through innovation. Having failed to do that, charters were introduced to allow for innovation. Through that innovation, places like Edward Brooke have succeeded. Although I do not give the Mayor high scores for his stance on education, this move at least (if one pretends that it is more than mere lip service) suggests that he believes that the problem is not the student make up (or likely the teachers) but, rather, the BPS system. The BPS system - i.e. the bureaucracy and the unions (and I am referring to the unions, not the members of the unions) are simply entrenched in the status quo. The status quo is unacceptable and needs to be disrupted, if not discarded. Creating more charters with independent authority is a good way to do that in an organized way, and one in which the students, as well as the teachers, benefit. It is unclear to me who, exactly, looses from charters other than the unions and the existing BPS bureaucracy.

Ah yes, the strawman charters

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Well, picking Brooke as your case study was probably a tactical error, because prior to her principal gig, my wife taught there for six years. So! Let's talk about all the things you made up about charter schools in general, and Brooke in particular.

Charter schools don't have to accommodate special education students or students with disabilities and can get rid of students that under perform

This is definitely the most prevalent thing that gets cited to explain the gap away. My repeated insistence that this does not, will not, and cannot happen tend to fall on deaf ears, so I'll go straight to the source: Mass General Law specifically forbids charters from doing what you're accusing them of. General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 71, § 89 (f)(10): The board of education shall establish the information needed in an application for the approval of a charter school; provided, however, that said application shall include but not be limited to a description of [...] a statement of equal educational opportunity which shall state that charter schools shall be open to all students, on a space available basis, and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, ancestry, athletic performance, special need, or proficiency in the English language, and academic achievement.

Which is all just a roundabout way of saying: if you have the slightest bit of proof that any charter, anywhere in the state, is rejecting applicants or removing students from the school setting because of special education needs, you need to bring it up with the attorney general or the state board of education, and the school in question will have its charter revoked. But, in almost twenty years of charter schools operating in the state, there hasn't been a single charter pulled for this sort of violation, despite their large number of detractors, so I'm left to assume that no has ever been able to prove that it happens. Which, again, is because it doesn't. The way this argument is couched makes it sound like a shadowy conspiracy by administrators and teachers to actively cull trouble-makers from their ranks, which (if you happen to know any administrators or teachers in charter schools) is wildly offensive and patronizing, and shows a total lack of respect for educators who have sacrificed their own well-being to try to work in the trenches where there's educational progress being made. Charter school teachers aren't union members, which means they make about 2/3 as much as their BPS contemporaries, work much longer hours, and are up for fire/rehire decisions every year. If they hated their special-needs kids as much as you're insinuating they do, they'd probably go work somewhere somewhere else.

Where do all of these students that charter schools don't accommodate go? To the public schools. So, of course public school test scores are going to be worse.

In the time that my wife worked at Brooke, I heard of one expulsion. It was a kid who sexually assaulted a classmate, his third such offense in two years. They bent over backwards to make it work with him, and he wouldn't make any effort. Again, expelling someone with an IEP because of his/her disability would be a violation of federal law--if you know of even a single case of it happening, go raise hell about it, because it really would be an awful thing. If it happened. Which it does not. Now, there's a potentially interesting discussion to be had here about lesser pressures that get put on kids' parents to seek other schools for their kids, but you don't seem to be dealing too heavily in nuance here, so I'll save that for another day.

The number of students tested is 46. As you follow that class the next three years, the class size gets smaller and smaller. In 2010, there are 37 students in 6th grade. In 2011, there are 25 students in 7th grade. In 2012, there are 22 students in 8th grade. Something seems fishy here. Half of the students are gone now...why?

I'm assuming you're driving at "half the students were driven out because of behavioral problems/testing deficiencies." Even if you discount the previous discussion entirely, AND ignore the base attrition rate to kids leaving for exam schools, it wouldn't even come close to explaining a 50% attrition rate, unless you're feeling especially cynical about the student population. Many factors are at work here, but four come to mind as the most common stories I heard while my wife worked there.

  1. Brooke is in Roslindale, which is way out the southern extremes of the city. This doesn't sound like it would matter much, but I can tell you with some certainty that parents really, really hate having to arrange transportation all the way down there, especially from places like Brighton or East Boston, where it can take 60+ minutes one way during rush hour. An alarmingly large number of parents started looking for other lottery openings pretty much the first day they had to make the drive themselves, rather than put their kid on a bus.
  2. Attrition because of problems at home is really high. Last year, she had 2 of her class of 20-something withdraw from school to go live with a relative in another part of the state or country. A lot of kids in BPS live in really unstable home environments, and enrolling in a charter school makes this a more visible problem, because Brooke in particular has staff whose entire job is to sniff out problems at home, and make enquiries with CPS. Boston Public might not care enough to look into things less obvious than black eyes, but Brooke absolutely does
  3. The school day is 30% longer than at BPS. Kids hate this. HATE it. Which, again, shouldn't matter, but when your kid complains to you every day about how much longer he's in school than his friends are, and you're a marginal-at-best parent, maybe you listen. My wife had 2 or 3 parents who gave this as a reason for withdrawing their kids during her time there.
  4. Brooke is MUCH more aggressive about holding students back than BPS. This prevents kids from graduating from middle school and getting buried alive in their first year of high school, but it also doesn't sit well with students or parents. Given the option between sending a kid back to Brooke for a second year of 6th grade, or enrolling him in public school as a seventh grader, a lot of parents will withdraw him.

Also, it's worth noting that the total number of students per grade drops as you get older, because Brooke only intakes from kindergarten and 5th grade. If 7th grade loses a student, even though there's ten thousand names on the waiting list, they won't intake a kid starting at seventh grade because he'd be 2-3 grades behind the rest of the class and either get buried or have to repeat the grade a few times.

Although I'm all in favor of requiring charter schools to accommodate the same set of students that public schools must teach to (non-English speaking, disabled/special-ed, under performing).

Gee, if only there were such a law.

A final word on the non-English-speaking/under-performing bit: what really struck me about Brooke was how far teachers were willing to go to accommodate both students and their parents. My wife spent about 1/3 of her time tutoring kids individually, because Brooke partitioned the day in such a way that kids who were underperforming could be tutored in 1-on-1 situations during school hours rather than left to flounder. Extra tutoring after school was also available, which is why she was never home until 6 or 6:30. I've not heard of BPS offering the same services, though it's totally possible that they do. Meanwhile, she's fluent in Spanish, and dusted it off a dozen times a year for parent-teacher conferences, because she had a lot of first-generation immigrants as students. Between the rest of the staff, they could probably handle half a dozen languages without needing to bring in a translator. They rather like their students, and would probably be pretty upset at the accusation that they're trying to sweep them under the rug.

Brooke's student population

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Regardless of what the law says, the fact remains that the Brooke's student population in no way resembles a typical BPS school's. Unless I'm reading the MCAS data wrong, when the 2012 tests were taken the Brooke School had 279 students who were tested, of whom 16 (that's under 6%) had disabilities and 6 (or 2.15%) were ELL or former ELL. By way of comparison, BPS had about 26,000 students, of whom about 5,800 (over 22%) had disabilities and 10,100 (about 38.6%) were ELL or former ELL.

Based on the law you cited, I assume the Brooke is not actively recruiting this student population, and it's just a result of the audience that the charter school lotteries attract. But it's hard to find public school districts with as few students with disabilities as the Brooke - the two wealthy towns you mention (Wellesley and Carlisle) are at around 18% and 12.7%, respectively. Somehow, whether they have anything to do with it or not, the Brooke is pulling in a population that doesn't look anything like what we see in pretty much any traditional public school.

That's not to say that the MCAS results at the Brooke aren't impressive, because they clearly are. It's just to point out that it's really, really hard to do any kind of apples-to-apples comparison among these schools, and it's hard to know whether the things that are working at the Brooke would translate to a wider student population.

You have to apply

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You have to submit an application to get into the Brooke at which point you are in a lottery. The Brooke isn't recruiting anyone- they are randomly picking students from the pool of applicants. This seems to be a common refrain against the Brooke -they're picking their students. They take anyone who applies and who gets a spot- it's that simple.

If someone with IEP requirements doesn't apply, what is the charter school supposed to do? Unless you would like all eligible kids to be offered the same random opportunity (unlike every other BPS lottery school), I don't know how you can resolve this.

You'll never get anyone

You'll never get anyone corrupted by the slightest connection to teachers' unions to give a damn about the kids. I appreciate the effort to get the truth out there for others reading this thread through.

I work in a public school.

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I work in a public school. You will find dedicated staff in both BPS and charter schools.

My impression is that discipline is often more stringent and consistent in most charter schools vs. most BPS schools. A calmer, less disruptive environment plus more academic "time on learning" and parents motivated enough to at least fill out a pre-lottery application may explain different outcomes more than any other factors.

I wonder though

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If all schools are charter schools, will you see that effect? It's work to get your kid into a charter, so that usually means the parents care. The kids who are persistent underperformers and discipline problems have parents who don't give a rat's ass what their kids are up to.

Not work, just luck

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The charter schools are blind, lottery admission, there's no work involved.

But it isn't a lottery of the

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But it isn't a lottery of the entire student body, is it? It's a lottery of students who care, or whose parents care, enough about their education to submit their names, right? There's a lot of opportunity for selection bias there.

How much does it take to fill

How much does it take to fill out a form? There are certainly people who have learned how to work the system to their benefit, but this is hardly rocket science.

follow the money

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First of all - I agree Erik. I've done some volunteer work at a local charter and they are awesome (can't say the same for all -but Boston Charters do well). The biggest trick in their bag - more time in school.

But here's the thing - I think the reimbursement to a charter is about $15k per student or less - I'm sure you're wife can tell you and I'd be curious to know. The average cost across the system is closer to $22k (yes it includes special ed - but if you look at the numbers that's not the driver for the cost - it's mostly health care and pensions). These charters are going to need to raise some level of additional funds and I'm not sure there are that many pockets left in the city willing/able to put up the dough.

I am a little suspicious of a mayor who becomes such a fan of charters 19 years too late and is doing it at time when it looks like the city is approaching a fiscal cliff of their own. Assuming we can afford this move, I think the positive is that we will get better educational options for our kids - but I think the underlying rationale is economic. As it is we've moved thousands of kids into charters which should be saving millions of educational dollars - or leaving room to lavish luxuries on those remaining in the system. Where has all the savings gone?