When Massachusetts’ landmark Education Reform Act was signed into law 20 years ago, attention was mainly focused on the massive commitment of state resources and the tough new accountability measures. The creation of charter public schools might have seemed almost an afterthought.
But today, it is charter schools that are driving education reform in Massachusetts. Even after two decades of success, many challenges still lie ahead. Now is not the time to retreat from the reforms on which our success was built.
The first 14 charter schools opened in 1995. Today, 76 charters educate about 3.3 percent of Massachusetts’ public school population.
But that growth hasn’t been nearly enough to keep up with demand. Twenty-five new charter schools have been authorized in just three years since Massachusetts increased the cap on the number of students who could attend charters in the commonwealth’s worst-performing school districts. Even with the increase in charter seats, there were still more students on waitlists than attending charter schools in Massachusetts during the 2012-2013 school year.
Charter schools’ success at educating the students they enroll has been well-documented. A Stanford University study published earlier this year found that Boston charters are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country. It is just one in a steady stream of studies confirming the outstanding performance of Massachusetts charters.
Less attention has been paid to how charter schools’ success is driving the larger education reform debate. The extended school day so many charters use has become a staple of reform efforts across Massachusetts and beyond. Innovation schools, which the commonwealth unveiled in recent years, attempt to bring charter-style autonomy to district schools.
In fact, the enhanced autonomy and flexibility that are a charter school trademark are now routinely included in plans to turn around low-performing schools and school districts.