Boston Charters Post Huge Test Gains, But Discipline Debate Could Hinder Expansion

Boston parent Rosa Dixon has tried to get her daughter into a charter school four different times and four different times she has lost the lottery. But she’s not giving up.

“I’ve seen the difference in the education” between charters and Boston Public Schools, said Dixon, herself a product of the city school system. Dixon recently spoke at a pro-charter rally in Boston alongside other parents and organized by the group Families for Excellent Schools, which is a well-known lobbying force in New York but expanded into Massachusetts only last year.

But Marlena Rose argues that parents like Dixon are being sold a false promise. Rose is a former charter school parent herself who is the coordinator of Boston Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of groups, including teachers unions, skeptical of charters.

“[Parents] are being manipulated with the propaganda that charter schools are better,” she said. “Charter schools are not better; they test better.” Rose took her daughter out of a charter school, she said, in part because of its strict disciplinary practices.

To national charter advocates, Boston is the toast of the movement. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that Boston’s charter schools outperformed their traditional public school counterparts on math and reading tests by a larger margin than any of the 40 other urban areas studied.

Now those schools are bumping up against a state-imposed charter limit, stopping expansion in the city. This has mobilized a fierce, well-funded campaign to dump the charter cap, which has been met with a fierce, well-funded campaign to keep it.

The fight is indicative of an increasingly common front in the education reform debate: what it means to be an effective school, what test scores can — and can’t — tell us, and whether charters’ tough discipline and high suspensions rates are worth their results.

By ballot, by legislation, by court

Currently there are more than 70 charter schools in Massachusetts educating about 3 percent of the state’s students. There is a flat statewide cap of 120 charters and, more importantly, limits on charter growth in individual cities based on how much money charters receive from local districts. Serving nearly 14 percent of the city’s public school students, Boston charters have hit that ceiling.

The caps were put in place to limit charter expansion, as well as the amount of money leaving the traditional public school system, but advocates say there is parent demand for more charters.

A proposal to lift the cap last year failed in the state Senate, but charter supporters are continuing to push a bill in the legislature. They’ve also backed both a statewide ballot initiative and a lawsuit to expand charters — a creative set of strategies that advocates are trying to use as leverage in the Massachusetts Statehouse.

The lawsuit, filed by the families of five unnamed children on charter school waiting lists, argues that the cap violates the state’s guarantee of an adequate education. The suit is being handled pro bono by three top Boston law firms, and appears to be the first of its kind nationally.

Students who applied to charters but didn’t get in “have sought to improve the quality of their education by applying to Massachusetts public charter schools…and they’ve been denied by the arbitrary luck of the draw of the lottery,” said William Lee, one of the lawyers leading the suit.

Lee said the litigation was inspired by the Vergara case, in which California students successfully sued the state for allegedly allowing incompetent teachers to remain in the classroom.1 The case is being appealed.

The Massachusetts lawsuit is in its initial stages, and will likely face a motion to dismiss in the next several months.

Meanwhile, charter supporters have been collecting signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that would allow the Massachusetts state Board of Education to add up to 12 charter schools each year beyond the existing limits. Voter initiatives to create charter schools have passed in Georgia and, after three failed attempts, Washington state.

Advocates say they have enough signatures to put the issue to a vote in the 2016 election. Initial polls suggest that the electorate is split.

Dominic Slowey of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association said the initiative is a “backup plan” with his group hoping for a legislative solution “before we have to resort to a ballot.”

New governor, union leader, and mayor set the battle lines

The fight over the charter cap is heating up as three heavyweights have entered the political arena in Massachusetts.

The first is Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, elected in 2014 to replace Democrat Deval Patrick, who helped lift the charter cap in 2010. Baker campaigned on his support for charter schools and has put it at the top of his legislative agenda.

The second is Barbara Madeloni, who was elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) in 2014. She replaced a conciliatory union leader, Paul Toner, who in 2012 backed a tough new teacher evaluation bill in order to avoid a statewide ballot initiative on evaluation, which the union admitted it was likely to lose. Toner was also reportedly part of the negotiations to raise the charter cap in 2010.

Madeloni ran against the politics of appeasement and has already taken a different tack. Instead of cowering to the threat of a ballot initiative, the anti-charter Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance — a coalition of groups including the MTA — says bring the fight on. “We cannot compromise out of fear,” a letter to legislators explained. Madeloni has called charters “hyper-controlled test-prep factories.”

Slowey said that Toner was “much more reasonable” and did not spend “all his time trying to kill charters.” In contrast Madeloni, in his view, has taken a much more combative approach: “She wants to get rid of us.”

And then there’s Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who stands in between Baker and Madeloni, and is perhaps the biggest wild card in this debate. Walsh narrowly won election in 2013 against John Connolly, a former charter school teacher. Walsh was aided by a last-minute $480,000 ad campaign funded by the American Federation of Teachers.

Walsh has said he favors lifting the cap, but argues it should be done at a much slower rate than the governor supports. Walsh also faced questions recently after news reports that he planned to close many district schools and replace several with charters; Walsh has repeatedly denied this.

The case for charters: exceptional test scores

Proponents of charter expansion point to a large body of research showing that Boston charter schools produce large achievement gains for their students.

Along with the CREDO report, multiple other studies have found significant test score bumps for students who attend Boston charter schools. One study compared students who won the right to attend a charter to those who applied but lost, finding charter attendees had significantly higher test scores across different exams, including the SAT, and were more likely to attend four-year colleges.2

However, charter students had lower on-time high school graduation rates, which one of the researchers, Sarah Cohodes of Columbia University Teachers College, said likely results from a more rigorous curriculum in charter high schools.

Although it is true that Boston charters serve slightly fewer special education students and significantly fewer English-language learners than district schools3, the research ensures apples-to-apples comparisons because of the schools’ enrollment lotteries. The researchers also tested whether a “peer effect” of being surrounded by more motivated students might explain this success and found it unlikely.

Another study looked at Boston district schools taken over by charters; again, fairly large achievement gains were found.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, explained in an interview that he didn’t question charters’ test score gains, but said, “They’re teaching to a standardized test. No one is arguing that the kids who [attend charters] are [more] well-rounded.”

A separate study conducted by Cohodes of Columbia found no evidence to support the teaching-to-the-test theory. Although her analysis can’t be conclusive, Cohodes examined whether charters were stressing questions most likely to show up on state tests and higher-stakes subjects like math and English.

Sky-high suspension rates

Of all the criticisms charter skeptics have thrown against the wall, several stick.

Charter advocates like Baker say that there are 37,000 students on charter waiting lists, but a report from state auditor Suzanne Bump found that the figure was “significantly overstated” due to outdated numbers and students who are on more than one list. The extent of unmet demand for charters is unclear.

A careful analysis of Boston found between three and four charter school applicants for every available seat at the middle school and high school levels. Most students however did eventually receive an offer to attend a charter — either via lottery or off the wait list — but many, including 60 percent of high schoolers, ultimately turned down the chance to go to a charter.

And although most of the debate is focused on Boston charters, the evidence from the rest of state is less positive. The studies finding large test scores gains in Boston also find no evidence that charters in the rest of the state are outperforming traditional public schools. Research has found that urban charter schools adhering to the so-called “no excuses” approach produce achievement gains, while other charters don’t. Changes to the cap would allow charter schools to grow in cities, in addition to Boston, that are currently limited, including Holyoke, Lawrence, and Somerville.

Another issue is how charters affect district schools. Some worry that charters take both more motivated students and money away from traditional public schools. There has been little if any research on this question in Massachusetts, though studies from other parts of the country suggests that charters generally don’t harm — and may even slightly help — test scores in district schools. On the other hand, there is evidence that charter expansion can create negative financial consequences for districts.4

Perhaps the concern that best gets at the heart of the charter debate is the disciplinary practices of many Boston charter schools.

An analysis of data from the Massachusetts Department of Education found that in the 2013–14 school year the vast majority of Boston charter schools had higher suspension rates than Boston Public Schools. In most cases, the differences were large, particularly for some of the charters with the highest test scores.

For instance, UP Academy Charter School of Boston suspended at 10 times the rate of city school; Roxbury Preparatory Charter was about eight times the city average.

Notably, despite concerns that high suspensions will push kids out of charter schools,  it does not appear that charters as a group have higher student attrition rates than Boston Public Schools.5

Stutman of the Boston Teachers Union said, “[Charters] don’t tolerate insolence, they don’t tolerate kids tapping their feet on the floor, they don’t tolerate gum chewing…As a result of that, [charters] get a very compliant population. I don’t think that’s something to be admired.”

Some charter schools agree that discipline is a major concern and say they are addressing it.

Victoria Criado, the chief public affairs officer for UP Education Network — a group of charter schools with both high test scores and high suspension rates — said, “When we look at some of our suspension data…we think it’s unacceptable and we’re working everyday to amend that.”

Criado said suspension rates from last school year, which the state hasn’t released yet, will show significant decreases. Though they will likely remain higher than rates in Boston Public Schools.

“For 98 percent of students, [our] systems, structures, and expectations make sense…We do have a number of students where those structures don’t work,” she said, explaining that UP is focusing on working with the other 2 percent of students and their families to ensure they succeed within the network’s schools. (Read The Seventy Four on how UP Academy turned around a failing Dorchester, Mass. elementary school.)

Other charter advocates see the issue as a distraction.

“We don’t believe [suspensions] are an educational problem…Charter opponents have used the high rates at a few charters for political purposes. So it has resulted in some political issues for us,” Slowey, of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in an email.

Is it worth it and who decides?

The question in Boston is whether the high test scores are worth the cost in the form of what some see as harsh discipline. This is increasingly the issue in other parts of the country grappling with whether to expand charter schools. Perhaps more importantly the question is who gets to answer it. Politicians? Voters? Courts? Parents?

In Massachusetts, with both sides ready to fight and the legislature seemingly divided, the best bet might be that the issue will go on the ballot, with voters making the ultimate decision. The courts may also have their say.

To Lee, the lawyer suing to lift the cap, the answer for who decides is clear. “I think in a circumstance where you can make a legitimate argument that public charter schools are a significantly better education, then you at least ought to give the kids a chance to make their own choices. And you ought not be making the choice for them,” he said.

Madeloni sees it differently. In a radio interview, addressing families who might want to send their child to a charter school, she said, “Join us in thinking beyond just your child. We are stronger as a community when we think beyond our circle.”


1. Disclosure: A lawsuit similar to Vergara has been filed in New York. The lawsuit is backed by the group Partnership for Educational Justice, which was cofounded by The Seventy Four’s editor in chief Campbell Brown. (Back to story)

2. Notably, the vast majority of charter schools in Boston held lotteries, allowing the researchers’ study to cover 87 percent of charter students in the most recent report. When using non-lottery-based estimates — a less ideal, but still rigorous approach — the research continues to find large test score gains. (Back to story)

3. Some of the differences here may be the result of how charter schools versus district schools classify students as English-language learners or as requiring special education. However, a large portion of the gap is likely caused by differences in application rates among different student groups. Recent data however suggests that this gap between charters and district schools has been closing over time, but still exists. (Back to story)

4. Massachusetts has a ‘hold harmless’ school funding provision stipulating that district schools that lose students to charters do not immediately lose funds associated with those students. However, this does not preclude an impact of charters on funding for the public school system as a whole or long-term funding issues for districts and schools heavily impacted by charters. (Back to story)

5. More precisely, charter middle schools have lower attrition rates than BPS middle schools, but charter high schools have higher attrition rates. The charter high school attrition rates have gone down since 2010 to the point that in recent years there has been no difference in attrition rates between charter and district high schools. (Back to story)


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