PLEDGE NOW
Boston

Richard Whitmire: It's time to drop the limits entirely and shift to a system that focuses on building high performing schools, both charter and traditional. Pictured: Students at Boston's Brooke Charter School participate in class. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

The demand by Gov. Charlie Baker in last week’s inauguration speech for more charter schools undoubtedly prompted groaning from scores of legislators still licking wounds from the charter cap battle they endured last July.

This time, it doesn’t have to play out that way.

Already, Massachusetts leads the nation in K-12 education, from its acclaimed school accountability to its high scoring students. Now, Massachusetts has a chance to lead again: Drop the caps entirely and shift to a system that focuses on building high performing schools, both charter and traditional.

the entire concept of maintaining ‘caps’ on charters is nonsensical, dating back to a time when charter schools were unknowns that needed to prove themselves. Well, now we know.

Honestly, the entire concept of maintaining “caps” on charters is nonsensical, dating back to a time when charter schools were unknowns that needed to prove themselves. Well, now we know. In Massachusetts, you will find the best charter schools in the country, schools that take in some of the state’s neediest students and easily outperform the district schools those students left.

I recently spent more than a year crisscrossing the country for book research, visiting top charter schools. But in all my travels I never saw a charter quite like Boston’s own Brooke Charter Schools. Anyone visiting Brooke schools will observe students that roughly match Boston’s regular school population, heavily poor and minority, and yet those students perform academically more like students in Boston’s wealthiest suburbs.

Not surprisingly, there are 5,000 wait-listed students who want into one of the Brooke schools. But there is no room. Brooke would like to add another K-8 school and build a high school so its students can maintain that accelerated academic course. But the cap prevents that.

Other top Massachusetts charter schools have similar academic success stories and similar wait lists. Last spring the Match Charter Public School had 2,100 entries for about 130 available seats. Boston Collegiate has a waiting list of 2,500 students. What possible excuse is there for denying an expansion?

As the governor pointed out in his speech, there are 45,000 Bay State students on charter wait lists. In his words: “It’s wrong for any of us to stand on a front porch or in a city neighborhood sympathizing with a mom or dad when they tell us their child is not getting the education to succeed in life and then oppose lifting the charter school cap or making the changes we need to ensure that every school is great.”

The governor has a point.

Eliminating caps on charter schools doesn’t mean that charter schools will proliferate. Maybe only a handful will win approvals. The point is to shift the debate away from political deal-making and toward what’s needed to create more top schools. The focus should be on good charter school authorizing. That should be a process where only the best new schools are allowed to open and the non-performers get shut down.

The nation’s best research on charter schools comes out of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Caps set on charter schools have little impact on quality, said director Margaret Raymond. “Strong authorizing is the primary policy lever that determines good quality.”

Last July’s Senate debate about raising the cap was Seinfeldian; it was truly “about nothing.” Now comes a chance to have a debate “about something.” To strengthen authorizing, legislators could discuss what has played out in Washington, D.C., where a first-rate authorizer managed to weed out bad charters, usher in great charters, tap high performing charters to take over weak charters and hammer out a common enrollment deal with the district system. Massachusetts already has good authorizing, but is there something that could be borrowed to make it even better?

The point is to shift the debate away from political deal-making and toward what’s needed to create more top schools.

Lawrence, Massachusetts, already has a great example of a district using charters to rebuild itself, but why not go further? In places such as Denver and Spring Branch in Houston, charter and district leaders are pioneering new ways to both learn from one another and offer all parents some school choice, not just the parents wealthy enough to move to the suburbs. That’s another issue legislators could debate.

My visits to the best charter schools led me to conclude that the top charter schools in the nation, those achieving roughly a year-and-a-half of learning in a single school year, have enormous potential to expand, either on their own or collaborating with traditional school districts. Given the high number of top charters in the Bay State, the possibilities are endless.

In July, the Senate rejected raising the cap. This time, the House and Senate should reject caps entirely and move on to a far more rewarding debate. Keep alive the state’s reputation as top educators.

And please, keep those 45,000 wait-listed kids in mind.

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Tags: Beacon Hill, Boston

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