April 26, 2013

Lift cap on urban charters in Massachusetts

April 25, 2013

By Nina Rees and Gerard Robinson

As former federal and state government education officials, we continue to be impressed by the performance of Massachusetts charter public schools. But we can’t help but wonder how a state that has opened some of the country’s highest-performing charters has failed to lift the cap on the number of urban schools that can open. Taking this simple step would create extraordinary new opportunities for families to benefit from the charter school experience.

A new Stanford University study confirms that charter schools are a smashing success in Massachusetts. The study, from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, finds that Boston charter schools are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country.

The typical Boston charter student gains the equivalent of more than 12 months of additional learning annually in reading and 13 months of greater progress in math. Statewide, charter school students gain the equivalent of one-and-a-half more months of learning per year in reading and two-and-a- half more months in math.

The Stanford study comes four years after a Boston Foundation report found that Boston charter schools dramatically outperformed both district and pilot schools. The academic impact from a year spent in a Boston charter was comparable to that of a year spent in one of the city’s elite exam schools and, in middle school math, equivalent to one-half of the achievement gap between black and white students.

MCAS results tell a similar story. In 2012, 20 charter schools, including many urban charters, finished first in the commonwealth on various tests. Many inner-city charter schools are outperforming even affluent suburban schools.

In February, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved five more charter schools. But that isn’t nearly enough when many more high-quality charters are being proposed and over one-third of the students in urban Massachusetts public schools are still failing MCAS exams.

Just look at some of the charter applications the board turned down. One was from the founders of Boston’s Edward W. Brooke charter schools. One of the existing Brooke schools was among the urban charters earning the commonwealth’s best MCAS scores (in fourth-grade English and math and eighth-grade English). A second Edward Brooke school ranked number one in fifth grade English and math on the commonwealth’s growth model, which measures improvement in academic performance over time.

Another proposal that was rejected came from the founders of Everett’s Pioneer Charter School of Science, which topped the growth model for the eighth-grade English MCAS test. So was an application for the International Charter School of Brockton, a city that has no charters despite being among the school districts that performs in the bottom 10 percent statewide on MCAS.

The Brockton school would have been operated by SABIS, an educational management company. The company’s Springfield school dramatically outperforms the surrounding district and has been chosen as one of the nation’s top high schools by Newsweek and US News and World Report. Every member of all 12 of the school’s graduating classes has been accepted to college.

Two more schools would have been operated by graduates of the prestigious Building Excellent Schools fellowship. Fellows spend a year learning how to design, fund and lead a charter school. The program’s graduates have started over 50 schools in more than 20 cities serving nearly 20,000 students. They have a proven track record of closing achievement gaps, but none of their schools are here in Massachusetts, where the program is based.

A bill pending in the state Legislature would make it easier for urban Massachusetts families to benefit from schools like the ones recently turned down by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The bill would eliminate the cap on how many students can enroll in charter schools in districts that rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide. More than 250,000 students — about 30 percent of the commonwealth’s total public school enrollment — attend schools in these districts.

With each study of Massachusetts charter public school performance, more anti-charter arguments fall by the wayside. The evidence of their success is overwhelming and the time has come to make the educational opportunity they represent available to many more of the commonwealth’s neediest families.

Nina Rees is president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Gerard Robinson is a former state education official in Virginia and Florida, and a member of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform Advisory Board.



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