Why tone and language matter

There is a big battle brewing in Massachusetts over whether or not to raise the current cap on the number of charter seats allowed in the state. In an attempt to address the concerns of both sides, the Senate working group has written a piece of legislation that addresses not only the cap on the number of seats but also funding disparities, transparency concerns as well as safe guards for the most vulnerable students. I personally don’t have an issue with student and families being offered a variety of educational options, this includes charter schools. Each child is different and a one size fits all model of education will no longer work because our needs are very different than when public standardized education was first introduced in this country. But the impact on the majority of students (96%) in traditional public schools needs to be mitigated to prevent a complete collapse of public education.

Many parents are in support of this bill because it takes a balanced, nuanced approach to a very complex situation and requires collaboration between those that favor charter schools and those that favor traditional public education. The teachers unions and the pro charter backers have decided they would rather fight it out at the ballot box and in the process spend millions of dollars that they could otherwise invest in educational initiatives across the state. I’d ask that they all take a look at the end goal – happy, productive kids and determine how best to focus their energies. While the dismissal of the RISE Act by Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh is telling as to where their support clearly lies, the most egregious response was from Paul Grogan, head of The Boston Foundation.

We have a big success story happening in a very difficult area, and if there’s some pain and suffering to existing institutions because they haven’t been able to be effective, there’s going to have to be consequences to that, just as there is in the private sector.

I’d like to break this down:

  • We have a big success story– This statement implies that charter schools are far more successful than traditional public schools. I have not seen results to support those claims after digging down into the data. Yes, some schools appear to be more successful when using traditional measures of standardized test scores. However, what is not addressed, are cohort attrition rates. While charters students are accepted on a lottery basis, there is a disproportionate attrition rate among ELL students and special needs students. In addition, I’m not convinced that most charters are doing anything revolutionary or innovative. Those that are deserve to be celebrated as do the pilot, Horace Mann and innovation schools within BPS. To say nothing of the alternative models of education that are popping up across the country.  More schools need to be given the freedom to do what works for their student population. This will require work on the part of districts and teachers unions as well as financial support from city, state and federal governments. As for charters, most seem to be simply offering the same rigid, model of standardized, institutionalized education but with fewer restrictions. The current educational model needs some real, significant  and systemic changes. However to require one model to adhere to one set of regulations and the other an entirely different set and compare them with the same standards is ridiculous.
  • “Very difficult area” – What he doesn’t say is but is implied is “urban public schools”. The charter battle is most heated in school districts serving highly concentrated areas of poverty with their schools labeled as “failing” schools. I don’t believe that it is just urban schools that are failing our children. This label of “failing schools” only being applied to schools as a measurement of test scores and graduation rates ignores the pernicious nature of poverty. Perhaps a serious look needs to be given to the myriad social services schools provide in these low income communities. Perhaps if city, state and federal officials made a real attempt to address the policy issues (both current and historical) that have left such disparate concentrations of wealth across the nation and specifically in cities such as Boston and San Francisco, schools wouldn’t need to provide so many services under the umbrella of education. The complexities surrounding educating low income students are beyond the scope of my experience. What I will say is that urban schools, from my perspective, are the final safety net for low income students. I do agree that many students are failing to get the education they deserve. While money will not solve all the problems, the fact that in BPS many schools don’t have a dedicated librarian or nurse, safe functional buildings or the variety of innovative challenging program offerings ubiquitous in the suburbs surrounding BPS is due to generations of financial neglect on the part of the city and state. In this case, more money will help alleviate the inequities.
  • If there’s some pain and suffering to existing institutions because they haven’t been able to be effective, there’s going to have to be consequences to that, just as there is in the private sector.” I’m not even sure where to begin with this statement. To me, it reveals disconnect between the focus on policy and the people it impacts. Institutions don’t feel pain and suffering, people do. The people, in this case, are the children of the Boston and other districts with high conentrations of poverty. Perhaps he should expand his definition of failing institutions to cover all areas of government and private regulations that have enabled a small percentage of citizens to continue to prosper while the majority are unable to advance economically in spite of hard work and determination. My question for Mr. Grogan would be “Do these kids really deserve to be punished because for generations, we as a country have failed to address the continual apathy towards the realities of the poor?”

I chose to believe Mr. Grogan does the work he does from a place of compassion and conviction. I’ve reviewed TBF’s 990 forms and they support a wide variety of initiatives to help improve the quality of life in the city of Boston. It is one of the few foundations that while  supporting charter schools, also support efforts within the Boston Public school system to address the shortfalls in their funding. I urge him to rethink this impact this statement is having on the 56,000 students in Boston public and across the state. We would all be better served if we work together to raise up all students rather than place the focus on a small percentage of kids and continue to label them as “failing.” We need to change the narrative and begin highlighting what is working across the board (traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools and alternative educational models) and work to expand those that are successful in a fair and equitable way to more children.


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