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Mass. charter schools deserve to be expanded

IN THE LONG-running battle against charter schools, few arguments have been used more often, or more erroneously, than this dual dose of disinformation.

First, that the charter school successes come because they simply take the best students from the traditional public school system. Second, that charters are not required to serve students with special needs.

Certainly if all that charter schools did was cherry-pick pupils whose socioeconomic backgrounds have left them well prepared for success, it would help explain the strong results the innovative academies have achieved.

Similarly, if charters didn't serve students with special needs, they would have another big advantage over the traditional public schools, since students with special needs are both more expensive to educate and less likely to do well academically.

But data from the Massachusetts Department of Education give the lie to both arguments. And that's worth keeping in mind as the effort to freeze (and squeeze) the Commonwealth charter school movement returns to Beacon Hill with this year's budget debate.

Consider: Charter school students are poorer than those in traditional public schools. Fully 42 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with 26 percent of the total Massachusetts public school population (a group that includes both students in traditional public schools and charter public schools). Further, while 25 percent of the entire public school population is minority, minorities comprise 49 percent of total charter school enrollment.

Now, it is true that a greater percentage of the students served by the traditional publics are special needs students, possibly because charter schools are not required to take high-needs children who require full-time day or residential programs. But the percentage difference is slim: 14 percent of the entire public school population is made up of special education students, while those students constitute 12 percent of charter school enrollment.

Charters can even argue that they do a better job with their special needs students. Across all grade levels, special education students in charter schools had a pass rate of 68.7 percent on the 2002 math MCAS, compared with 51.5 percent for the special needs students in the public schools. Twenty-four percent of charter special education students scored at the advanced or proficient level, compared with 13 percent of special education students in the traditional systems.

On English language arts, the traditional schools had a slight advantage: 23 percent of public school special-ed students scored advanced or proficient, compared with 21 percent of special-ed students attending charters. In all, 68 percent of public school special education students passed in any form; 67 percent of charter special-ed students did the same. When it comes to the way those students are taught, charters do more full inclusion in the classroom, a method parents usually favor. Twenty-two percent of charter school special-ed students are instructed that way, compared with 11.5 percent of special-ed students in the traditional public school system.

Meanwhile, new data that track students according to their composite performance index, a measure of school progress based on MCAS results, also show charters performing very well vis-a-vis the traditional public schools in their districts when it comes to educating minority students, poorer students, and students with disabilities.

A growing body of evidence, then, shows that the charter school movement has provided a welcome element of choice for many low-income and minority families. Indeed, many parents of charter pupils were on Beacon Hill last week to tell legislators exactly that.

In any fair evaluation of charters, the results would speak for themselves.

And they would argue not for the moratorium being pushed by charter foes but rather a careful expansion of the charter movement.

Unfortunately, with the teachers unions implacably hostile to the charters, facts don't always matter. But for anyone interested in the evidence, the conclusion should be elementary: The charter school movement is an experiment that's working.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is 

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