If Charter Schools Are So Successful, Why Aren’t They More Widespread?

Given the outstanding performance of so many charter schools in Massachusetts, some question why it's such a battle to allow more of them.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently kicked off another battle to lift a state cap of 72 on the number of so-called commonwealth charter schools.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other advocates have developed an ambitious plan to place nearly half of Los Angeles' public-school students in charter schools within eight years. To fund the nearly half-billion-dollar effort, backers plan to tap Broad and several other foundations, along with a number of area billionaires.

Given the powerful, well-funded interests behind the plan, no one would describe it as the kind of grassroots effort the Founding Fathers had in mind when they dreamed of a dynamic democracy driven by engaged citizens. But you can't help but wonder if L.A.'s charter advocates arrived at their plan after studying Massachusetts' experience.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently kicked off yet another battle to lift a state cap of 72 on the number of so-called commonwealth charter schools, which are independent of local school districts and more numerous than the in-district schools known as Horace Mann charters. About 3 percent of the state's public-school students now attend both types of charter schools, which are concentrated in urban areas.

The cap was last raised in 2010, driven largely by the prospect of $250 million from the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" grant program. A thriving charter sector was one of the criteria for receipt of the federal money.

Across the country, there is wide variation in the quality of charter schools. But few would disagree that Massachusetts' charters are the nation's best. One 2015 study, from Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, found that Boston charter schools are doing more to close the achievement gap than any other group of public schools in America. And a 2009 study commissioned by the Boston Foundation and conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers found that the academic impact of a year in a Boston charter school is roughly equivalent to a year spent in one of the city's elite public "exam schools."

And it isn't just Boston's charters. Massachusetts' K-12 public schools are the best-performing in the country, and across the state 18 charters finished first last year on state tests. That's a big part of the reason 37,000 state students are on charter-school waiting lists, a situation that Baker calls "a disgrace."

So why, given the outstanding performance of so many of Massachusetts' charter schools, is it always such a battle to allow more of them? Opposition from superintendents, school boards and teachers' unions is a very powerful thing in what is -- with the exception of Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who are Republicans -- a one-party state when it comes to officials who are elected statewide.

Opponents make a number of arguments, but the main one comes down to the claim that charters drain money from traditional public schools. In a sense, they do. In Massachusetts, the money follows the student; when a student chooses to go to a charter school, the per-pupil funding goes along with him or her.

But what opponents rarely mention is that districts are fully or partially reimbursed for six years for each student they lose. During the first year, they receive 100 percent of the funding they would have received had the student stayed, then 25 percent for each of the next five years. That fact makes the opponents' money argument dubious at best.

Sadly, dysfunction breeds dysfunction. The resistance that Massachusetts supporters encounter in trying to expand the number and availability of charter schools is familiar to charter advocates across the country. Plenty of that resistance exists in Los Angeles, so the L.A. advocates' effort to do an end-run around democratic processes surprises no one.

In the end, we all lose when promising school reforms are blocked by interests threatened by changes in the status quo. Families are denied educational opportunity, local economies become less competitive because the potential of thousands of students is never realized, and citizens' faith in government sinks even lower.

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