A Question of Better Education for All

classroom with students

Dear Education Advocates,

Question 2, which will appear on Massachusetts voters’ ballots on Nov. 8, claims that it will increase educational choice and improve educational standards across the state. In fact, it would do the opposite.

For the past decade, Massachusetts has led the nation in academic achievement. Our students have even been top ranked internationally in a time when the country’s educational outcomes have slid year by year. Massachusetts accomplished this by taking bold steps that impact all students, most importantly changing the state’s school funding system to invest more in schools in high need, low-income areas so that all students have a better opportunity to achieve. There is still critical work to be done to close persistent opportunity gaps in the system, but we won’t get there if we go in completely the wrong direction. This would be to allow state officials to give up on investing in improving a system that serves all students in need.

Saying “yes” to Question 2 would move the Commonwealth off the path towards great public schools for all students. Question 2 proposes to use taxpayer resources to increase, by 12 per year, the number of charter schools that can only be attended by a few in the state.

When charter schools, which now serve only 4% of the state’s public school students, were added to the Massachusetts model, they were never intended to be a comprehensive “education plan” for a state or locality, but rather an experiment that might provide sparks of innovation whose best practices would be integrated into the main system. It is in that system that the great majority—a full 96%—of Massachusetts students are educated. While it’s true that, like any educational system, we have a mixed record on innovation as well as achievement—there are exemplary as well as troubled charter schools—the bigger issues we need to examine go to the heart of our commitment to high quality public education for all children in the Commonwealth.

Public schools and an equal commitment to all children are pillars of our democratic system. Accountability has been rooted in local control ever since Massachusetts pioneered the first statewide system focused on all children when it instituted compulsory K-12 education in 1852.

Charters run directly counter to this democratic value. The state can approve a charter school in a community over the strong objection of the school committee and all the other locally elected officials who are accountable to the voters in that town. Only the state, not any local officials, can examine the finances or exercise oversight over charter schools. As for their private boards, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s study of Massachusetts charter schools revealed that many board members do not even live in the district where the charter is located; 31% are financial or corporate executives, while only 14% are parents; 60% of charters in our state have no parent representation at all.

When the corporate concept of “competition” is used to justify the argument for increasing the number of charter schools (and student enrollment in them), we need only remind ourselves that competition means winners and losers.

When the corporate concept of “competition” is used to justify the argument for increasing the number of charter schools (and student enrollment in them), we need only remind ourselves that competition means winners and losers. Why would voters ever want to substitute that value for a commitment to ensuring a high quality education for every child? We should focus our attention and resources on what has been the most successful in proven outcomes in our state: Constantly improving our public education system. Charter schools draw funding away from public schools that educate the great majority of state students, ranging from accelerated learners to special education, and including English language learners, children with learning disabilities, and homeless children who register mid-year.

Expanding the number of charter schools reinforces a caste system of private, charter and public schools. This is not visionary leadership or the bold leap needed to keep all Massachusetts students advancing as leaders in the nation. There are social justice reasons for ensuring any changes to our current system are designed to improve the opportunity to learn for all students.

And there are compelling economic reasons as well. Equal education for all breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty; it is the path to economic opportunity. Investing in a great education for all children in the Commonwealth is the only way to create a broad-based, diverse, well-educated workforce that is a magnet for employers and can fuel economic growth across the state. It also ensures full participation in our democratic society.

Voting “NO” on Question 2 will keep policymakers, educators, parents and students focused on the right question: What steps should we be taking to advance as the best public education system in the country for all Commonwealth students?

John Jackson and Josie Greene

Dr. John H. Jackson is the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Cambridge, MA.

Josie Greene is a Director of the Josephine & Louise Crane Foundation. The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Crane Foundation.

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