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At the Ballot Box
The Case for Charters is Overwhelming

Deep-blue Massachusetts is not normally an electoral trend-setter, but its closely-watched charter school referendum on November 8th could set the tone for education reform across the country in the coming months and years.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden has a new report weighing the arguments for and against the proposal, which would raise the cap on the number of charter schools that could be opened every year in the Bay State. His conclusion: If the goal of education policy is to maximize the success and opportunity for students, the case for more charters is unassailable. An excerpt:

According to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), students in Massachusetts’s charters receive the equivalent of an extra month and a half of reading instruction and an extra two and a half months of math instruction in a single academic year, relative to their peers in district schools. The state’s charter sector is among the best in the nation, and Boston’s charter schools are arguably the strongest in the country. Massachusetts secretary of education James Peyser notes: “Boston charter school students are learning at twice the rate of their district-school peers.” According to CREDO, students in Boston charters see the largest academic gains in the U.S. relative to their district school peers, scoring 0.32 standard deviations higher in math and 0.24 standard deviations in reading—the equivalent of 230 additional days of math instruction and 172 additional days of reading instruction per year.

Eden punctures the argument that the superior performance of charters can be attributed to student selection, citing high-quality studies that compare entering charter and district school students with comparable characteristics. He also shows that the primary argument against new Massachusetts charters—that they would siphon away money from district schools—is highly misleading. In fact, “charter enrollment also effectively raises per-pupil district spending by approximately $85 million” thanks to state reimbursements.

While the pro-charter side had a wide lead in the Spring, more recent polling shows the anti-charter forces with a slight edge going into the last several weeks of the campaign. Part of the reason is that advocates have not done enough to win over local teachers. Unions are united against the measure, and fighting tooth-and-nail, often with outright misinformation. That is a shame, as one of the goals of charter schools should be to empower good teachers to manage their classrooms more effectively.

The charter movement isn’t perfect, and, win or lose, it has more work to do. But there is little doubt that Bay State charters are among the most well-managed in the nation, and that they have improved the life prospects of tens of thousands of disadvantaged students. Here’s hoping Massachusetts voters decide to build on the program’s impressive success and expand opportunity even further.

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  • WigWag

    Actually, the case for charters is underwhelming. While charters in Massachusetts are better than charters in most other places, the same is true of the public schools. Massachusetts public schools are superior to the public schools in almost every other state. Via Meadia overstates the case when it suggests that charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere don’t select superior students and don’t make it difficult for problematic students to remain enrolled. They do both of these things. Via Meadia is also presenting only one side of the argument when it comes to the question of whether charters bleed money from public schools.

    Diane Ravitch suggests that Via Meadia has it all wrong. Ravitch may or may not be on to something but there’s no question that she is as serious, cogent and thoughtful a commentator on these issues that anyone at Via Meadia is.

    These two articles present the other side of the story;

    No one in Brookline, Wellesley or Newton is agitating for charter schools. It’s mostly millionaires and billionaires who think they know more about education than anyone else who are passionate about charters. Some parents in poor communities are too.

    But supporters of charters are perpetrating a fraud; the way a school is organized is largely irrelevant. How easy or hard it is to fire lousy teachers is also largely irrelevant. What’s relevant is the economic status of the kids who are in the school. Students who grow up in the underclass that largely populates America’s inner cities are highly likely to fail no matter how their school is organized.

    Converting public schools to charters is a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s not the size of the ship that matters and its the iceberg the ship is destined to run into.

    • seattleoutcast

      Thank you for the thoughtful argument. I imagine if parents want to get children into certain school districts, it means they are already putting in the time necessary for a successful education. I disagree with your argument regarding economic status. In the past, the children of poor, inner-city children did quite well if the parents contributed to their success–perhaps this argument was implicit in your comment? Growing up in the rural Midwest, I know many successful adults who went to very small, very, very poor schools. Homer Hickam is another case of a successful person from a very poor town in West Virginia.

      You also say that a problem with inner city schools is the inability to discipline students. In charter schools and other private schools such as ones run by the Catholic Church, one is able to kick out the student. I think that is a benefit of the charter school.

      • WigWag

        I agree with everything you say; past generations were able to overcome poverty and lesser quality schools and thrive. There’s nothing about poverty itself that is an impediment that is virtually impossible to overcome.

        But when poverty is married to all of the social ills that afflict today’s underclass the impediments become insurmountable. One parent families, rampant drug abuse,

        • seattleoutcast

          Yes–it’s interesting that once religion was eliminated from the household of poor people and replaced with a State Religion, it all fell apart.

    • Anthony

      You edited your reply (per usual) but my upvote is for 1st five paragraphs. The polemics of race, class, personal grievance, etc. obfuscates an otherwise valid comparison of Charters/Public Schools.

    • FriendlyGoat

      1) Good job correctly assessing that school quality is MOST heavily impacted for the good or the bad by what the STUDENTS bring in the doors. They either have positive living conditions, reasonable safety outside school and guidance from families possessing both sense and hope—-or they don’t. This should NEVER be understated—-and you didn’t.

      2) Good job raising the counter-arguments for charters—-with links. I particularly like this lifted from Ravitch’s blog: “There is no public oversight. There is little public input. They are privately run and funded with public money. This is the same principle that has worked out so well with prison food.”

      3) Not-so-good job blaming the “Great Society” for why so many students, black and brown and white depending on locale, are not living in the requisite conditions to foster their suitability for putting a positive impact on a school. Not-so-good job drawing in Hillary Clinton for a diss.

    • M Snow

      Great post. That is a very good description of what ails the current system and although I agree with most of your points, I do have two quibbles. First, I find the inability to fire poor teachers very relevant. My husband served in the Army and as a result we moved a lot. I taught in three different states and my children attended schools in four. Since I was often a substitute, I was able to observe dozens of schools. In any given school at least 10% and up to 50% of the teachers were just “phoning it in.” If administrations would get serious about booting the lazy ones, I believe some of the others would shape up.

      Second, I believe that many children from the ghastly homes and neighborhoods that you describe could be saved if school boards and administrators were dedicated to providing calm and safe classrooms by means of a serious expulsion policy. This would require them to stand up to the racial grievance crowd and the ACLU types. I am pessimistic about this happening in my lifetime, but it is theoretically possible.

    • texasjimbo

      I’m led to believe that charter schools spend less per pupil. So even if they don’t actually get better results, they are still a net positive: same results for less money=good.

  • LarryD

    Of course the unions are opposed, they’ve supported all the failed policies and politicians who have contributed to this mess (referring to all the policies that have undermined the family life etc of the poor). They correctly see any alternatives to their captive system as a resounding “You’re fired!” rebuke. The union’s own published agendas have, for years, placed education down the list of goals.

  • Robert What?

    Let’s face it. The main goal of the public unions is to employ as many teachers, administrators and bureaucrats as possible. Let’s please stop this farce that they are concerned about the bests interests of the children. Many individual teachers are, but the unions are in direct conflict with the best interests of the children and the citizens at large. Charter schools serve the best interests of the children but threaten the interests of the unions. Therefore, of course, the charter schools must go.

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