Lift the Cap on Charter Schools in MA

Massachusetts state officials are currently considering whether to lift the “cap” on the number of public charter schools in the Commonwealth. Governor Charles Baker has proposed lifting the cap to allow creation of more public charters, and a 2016 ballot measure could put the question to voters.

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KIPP Students participate in a school assembly.

I’m in favor of lifting the cap, and here’s why.

I’m part of a teaching team that founded a KIPP public charter elementary school this fall in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the brief time our school has been open, I’ve seen students plunging into books and learning letter sounds, counting to 100, doing science experiments, creating colorful art, and joyfully singing in school assemblies.

I’ve seen the smiling faces and tears of joy in family members who feel they’ve found a truly excellent educational home for their kids. These families, and many others like them, have been a driving force for more public charter schools in Massachusetts.

Sometimes district schools in lower-income communities do a great job. As a teaching artist in urban public schools for almost a decade, I’ve observed many excellent teachers and programs. One elementary school in Lynn achieved a National Blue Ribbon award this year. More power to them! We should all be learning from each other.

Unfortunately, educational quality is uneven and many at-risk students fall behind. Our education system still hasn’t figured out how to close the achievement gap. Finding solutions is a matter of great urgency, because the children can’t wait.

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KIPP students on a fall apple-picking field trip.

When families in wealthier communities are dissatisfied with their local schools, they have the means to send their children to private schools or to home-school. Low-income families do not have the same resources, and therefore are likely not to have those choices. Too often, their children are stuck in failing schools.

More than 37,000 children are on waiting lists in Massachusetts to attend public charter schools for this very reason. Charter opponents challenge the validity of this figure, saying it includes duplicates. In fact, the state implemented new rules in 2014 eliminating all duplicates and names that had been on the lists for more than a year. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education now audits these lists annually.

The bottom line is every child deserves the kind of education that our KIPP school offers. It’s no surprise that more than 200 families vied for our 120 kindergarten slots, because:

–KIPP students have a longer school day, 7:30-4:15 for four days a week. A typical day in most public schools is almost three hours shorter. On Fridays, our students’ school day is 7:30-1:15.

–Our teaching staff is consistently excellent. Our teachers place strong emphasis on academic rigor and challenging students to think critically. Expectations are high for both staff and students. The teachers are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating their practice, meeting every day to discuss strategies and spending an additional three hours every Friday on professional development. Our teachers have also worked hard to bring parents into their students’ education, offering evening workshops for parents so they have new tools to help their kids at home with reading and math.

–Our students receive daily instruction in science, engineering and the arts.

–Our school provides strong programs for English Language Learners and is well

positioned to serve students with learning delays and other special needs. Ninety-seven percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and over 80 percent of our students identify as people of color, with many coming from immigrant families. A second language is often spoken at home.

While opponents contend that charter public schools under-serve English Language Learners and students with special needs, this is not the case in our school or in many other charters. In Boston, the number of ELL students in charters has risen dramatically since 2010. Statewide, many charter schools now serve similar percentages to district public schools in enrollment of ELL students and those with special needs.

The heart of the matter is that our society urgently needs to do a better job educating students at risk. Why would we want to discourage schools that are actively discovering new ways to close the achievement gap? Those techniques need to be celebrated and shared, not condemned. And with so many thousands seeking the charter public school option, why shouldn’t the cap be raised to allow every family a broader variety of educational choices?

I can’t speak for every charter public school in Massachusetts, but my own school is definitely fulfilling the goals the Commonwealth envisioned for charters in the Education Reform Law of 1993. KIPP’s letters stand for the Knowledge is Powerful Program. Our school’s mission encompasses academic rigor, kindness and a challenge to change the world. I’m proud to be part of building a school with those goals. Every child in Massachusetts, no matter their income level, deserves a similar opportunity.

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