EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 18, 2013

Column: Lift the cap on quality schools

Ralph Carrero
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — President Obama, Gov. Patrick and other political leaders call education reform the civil rights issue of our era. Nowhere is that more true than in Lawrence and other “Gateway Cities” – older, medium-sized cities outside of Boston that are home to large numbers of new immigrants and high rates of poverty.

Gateway City schools must be the equalizer – providing children in these cities with a high quality educational foundation to enable them to compete in a vibrant economy and contribute to an equally vibrant democracy.

One way to ensure educational equity for Lawrence and other Gateway families would be to pass legislation co-sponsored by state Sen. Barry Finegold that would lift the cap on charter public schools in the state’s lowest performing school districts.

Next month will be the 20th anniversary of Massachusetts’ historic education reform law of 1993. One of the law’s goals was to make our public education system more equitable – in terms of funding, access to a quality education and accountability to the public.

The state put in place one of the nation’s most progressive school funding formulas, insuring equitable funding for each child and allowing charter schools to offer parents quality choices.

But today education reform’s goals of excellence and equity are threatened in Lawrence. The school district is in receivership after decades of underperformance. And in spite of the fact that the city’s charter schools dramatically outperform district schools, they are frozen in place with no more room to expand under state-imposed caps.

Massachusetts charter schools are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country – a claim confirmed by a new study conducted by researchers at Stanford University.

Statewide, the average charter public school student makes academic progress equivalent to spending two and a half more months in school in math and one and half more months in school in English (compared to district students). Statewide, 56 percent of charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in math, 44 percent in English. Only 13 percent of charter schools have results that are significantly worse than district schools in reading; 17 percent in math.

In Boston, the gains are even more startling: Boston charter students are learning at double the rate of Boston district students, making two years’ worth of academic progress in English and math for every year they’re enrolled in a charter school (compared to district students).

The analysis ensured impartial results by comparing charters against district schools the students formerly attended and controlling for various demographics, including race and ethnicity, special education status, income level, English language proficiency and grade level.

This type of success must be embraced and expanded. But, arbitrary caps prevent that from happening. Currently there is not a charter high school in the city of Lawrence as an option for students graduating from the two charter schools (K-8) operating in Lawrence. So unless our graduates, who are overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic, earn private school scholarships, they are left without any viable high school options.

Today, the dropout rate at Lawrence High School is among the highest in Massachusetts, and the city’s parents are frustrated. More students from Lawrence sit on charter school wait lists than from any city in Massachusetts except Boston and Springfield, according to state data. This is despite Lawrence’s relatively small population of about 70,000. And a recent poll by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth showed that voters in Gateway cities favor eliminating caps on charter schools in their communities by a 3-1 margin.

The movement to lift the charter cap isn’t self-serving. The goal is to extend educational opportunity to all families. That’s why charter operators are taking an active role in the Lawrence receivership.

It’s why the operators of Community Day have stepped in to operate Lawrence’s Arlington School. It’s why Boston’s MATCH charter high school is replicating its successful tutoring program at Lawrence High School. It’s why Chelsea’s Phoenix Charter Academy is operating a recovery academy for dropouts and at-risk students and why Unlocking Potential, a non-profit charter management organization, is managing two grade levels at another Lawrence school.

Some advocate for raising the cap on in-district Horace Mann charter schools, which remain under the control of the district but have some of the flexibility that independent charters have. Others say cap the charters and give the districts more tools. In reality, we need all three. We should not sacrifice our most successful model in order to promote others that may be safer politically. We should lift caps on all quality schools.

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Ralph Carrero is the superintendent/director of the Lawrence Family Development Charter Public School and vice president of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association.