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Don't cheat charter schools

EACH YEAR opponents of state-supervised charter schools in Massachusetts perform the same tired dance steps on Beacon Hill in an effort to stamp out these distinctive examples of education reform. It's a cynical exercise and an insult to the families of roughly 19,000 young people waiting for an opportunity to join the already 25,000 students attending charter schools in the state.

The charter school movement took root in Massachusetts 14 years ago to provide quality education and to prod local school systems, especially in urban areas. Relieved from union work rules and the demands of a large central bureaucracy, charter schools can respond quickly to student needs. Methods include longer school days, flexible scheduling, and customized curricula. And educators stay on their toes, knowing that failure can result in revocation of their charter by the state Department of Education.

On Tuesday, several of the state's top business and civic leaders, including the heads of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, urged legislators to oppose 20 or so bills aimed at weakening charter schools. The most dangerous is a bill crafted by school superintendents that would cripple charters through the creation of a lopsided funding formula.

Currently, the money follows the student, so that a school district must provide charter schools with the average cost for educating an equivalent student in that community. In turn, the district receives reimbursement from the state for three years. The superintendents' bill, however, would limit the district's commitment to just $5,000 per pupil - significantly less than the real cost of educating students anywhere in the state. Such a shifty bill doesn't merit serious consideration.

Charter schools are also helping to close the achievement gap. A recent DOE study found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools performed significantly better than their district counterparts on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. In most cities, the push to expand the number of charter schools is more sensible than the opposition's demand for a moratorium on charters.

Many legislators sympathize with district school superintendents who complain that their fixed costs remain high, even when enrollment declines due to charter school competition. The Patrick administration, which is also receptive to the argument, is examining the charter school funding formula as part of its overall analysis of education initiatives and spending. Extending the reimbursement schedule for school districts beyond three years might quiet the complaints. But there is really only one way sure way to defeat charter schools: provide district schools so good that no one would want to leave.

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