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Scot Lehigh

New momentum for charter schools

By Scot Lehigh
June 12, 2009
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TALK ABOUT barriers lifting and paradigms shifting.

Suddenly, support for charter schools, once the lonely province of public-policy entrepreneurs and intrepid, union-defying pols, has become positively mainstream.

For that, you can credit a pro-charter Democratic president, recent Boston Foundation-sponsored research demonstrating their educational efficacy, persistent pressure from both Boston dailies, a developing mayoral race in the Hub - and, oh yes, the myopic resistance to change displayed by the leadership of the Boston Teachers Union.

Last week, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a mayoral hopeful, outlined to me his bold plan to transform Boston's 10 worst schools into charters and to lift the charter cap so still more of the independent public schools can open.

This week, incumbent Tom Menino, long a charter opponent, also called for turning the city's most chronically underperforming schools into charters. If he fails to get state authority to do so, Menino pledged to push for raising the state cap on charters.

Councilor Sam Yoon, who told me in February that he favored more charters, weighed in with his own proposal: Letting charter schools with a proven record replicate themselves. "If you are successful, why should you be limited?" asks Yoon, who's also running for mayor. "We should be saying exactly the opposite: Be fruitful and multiply."

Because he's the incumbent, Menino's plan is most noteworthy. Let's be clear: It's hardly perfect. Why, for example, should the new charters be overseen by the Boston School Committee? The mayor and his team say that control will let the city target charters where they are needed, while allowing for uniformity in personnel policies and less administrative duplication. Still, we already have a charter school process that works well; pushing now to lift the cap is a better idea.

Second, given Menino's history of temporizing, it's fair to question whether this is merely a safe campaign harbor.

No, the mayor insists.

"When I get something in my craw and make a commitment, I usually get it done," he says. (Umm, what about City Hall Plaza?)

But here's one reason to think the mayor may be serious: Menino says he wants to be first in line for the new $5 billion in federal dollars Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is offering for cities and states that take the lead on matters like charter schools and performance pay. And that does sound like the mayor I know.

So, imperfect though Menino's plan may be, it could still signal cement-cracking change.

"Because this mayor is so long-serving and so powerful and because of his traditional reluctance to embrace the charter model, his change of position is extremely significant, both substantively and symbolically," says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation.

Further, the macro message is clear: After years of trying to nudge the existing system along, only to be thwarted by the BTU, the mayor has concluded he can't get the changes he needs by working solely within that system.

Menino acknowledges as much, noting the BTU has filed grievances over pilot schools - designed to be the city's in-district alternative to charter schools - and over a plan for performance pay for advanced-placement teachers.

"I have been out there working with them, and now we are in arbitration on two simple matters," says Menino. "When is it going to be about the kids?"

Finally, it's worth noting that the Patrick administration is retooling its own cap-lifting proposal. Although the administration still would only allow more charters in the worst performing districts - and then only to target achievement-gap populations - it is at least backing off plans to impose specific, up-front student-body requirements on any new charters.

That's a step in the right direction. Yet at a time when a Democratic president and his secretary of education are calling for the lifting of all caps on charters, there's room to be much bolder.

The charter battle is hardly over, of course. Words shouldn't be mistaken for deeds, nor intentions for results. Further, the Legislature, long a swamp of anti-charter ambuscade, needs to realize the urgency of moving forward.

All that said, however, the June momentum is marked and unmistakable.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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