Question 2 – A charter parent, former charter teacher and current BPS teacher explains her vote

This was originally posted on a Boston parent listserv. I asked to share it and the author agreed.  This is not my story to tell.

Originally posted by Mary Dibinga

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I’m going to give my perspective. I think it’s important to preface by saying that I’m a BPS exam school teacher and a black woman, and mother to a charter school student–I feel all of those factors have relevance to my position. I’ll also say that I’m an English teacher, so I apologize that much of what I say is explained more anecdotally than in hard data, so I’ll leave it to others to be ready with the numbers.

What makes Question 2 somewhat easier for me than the rest of the charter debate is that the question itself is narrow: it is not a referendum on whether charters should exist or whether they are good schools, but solely on whether the cap that limits their expansion should be lifted to allow up to 12 new charters per year in areas of low performing schools. With this narrowly-construed question, I am firmly on the ‘No’ side. I’ll break up my response into sections for clarity.

The expansion is too big.

The current law does not bar charter expansion, it only limits it, and there is good reason to do so. There are new charters approved to open this year in Boston and next year and more down the pike. My daughter’s school and others are in line with proposals for expansions of current schools or outright new schools, but I don’t think anyone is suffering from these schools all having to refine their ideas and compete for only a few to be selected. I just cannot understand why we would need to open the floodgates to allow as many as Question 2 lets in. It just makes sense to say that there is a limit to what we can sustain.

The expansion is too expensive.

Opening a new school is costly. It just does not make logical sense to believe that we could open more schools for the same cost.There is a commonly-touted idea that when a student leaves a district for a charter, they merely just take that one student’s allotted funds with them, but it’s not that simple. Just as an example BPS pays the transportation costs for all of the charter schools in Boston. As a second example, BPS schools have been told repeatedly that they cannot expand K1 slots across the district because the budget cannot support it. When new elementary charter schools open, they choose their configuration, start all students at K1 and BPS has to begin paying their per-pupil contribution at that grade level regardless of what BPS’ budget can support.

Another way to put this into perspective is to note that the BPS superintendent is now saying that pressures over drains to the budget are forcing BPS towards the cost-saving measure of consolidating and closing many of its small school pilot programs into larger schools and filling every inch of space in every building. How can we be talking about allowing more small charters in costly buildings if all that data tells us this is inefficient and unsustainable? Why is it not more reasonable to keep more of that money in efforts to improve the existing schools and programs within BPS?

The expansion will devastate BPS.

There’s been a lot out about this lately, I won’t belabor it, but if Question 2 passes, the outlook for BPS is really grim. That’s part of the reason why the City Council and the NAACP are so vocally against it.

The only way I could see still supporting Question 2 knowing the impact on BPS would be if I believed that BPS was a completely hopeless disaster and/or that the new charters would be a drastic improvement. I have found nothing to persuade me on either of those fronts. BPS, as a district, is far from failing. Further cuts would not be a surgical stroke cutting out bad schools and leaving the rest unscathed–cuts and closures would wreak havoc on the entire system.

One of the biggest immediate dangers to this initiative is that it will force BPS into some fiscally unsound, short-sighted austerity measures which have already been proposed. In addition to closing and consolidating schools, the push from charter schools wanting space and developers wanting land has already pressured BPS into talk of selling off school buildings. If Question 2 passes this is nearly guaranteed to happen. Once sold, BPS will never be able to afford to re-buy this land, making the damage from these decisions irrevocable.

New Charters are unlikely to be better than BPS

While there are some places where charter schools show a significant edge in performance over the district schools that is not true for Massachusetts or for Boston. Only a few charter schools consistently out-perform BPS and there are some serious questions about whether some of those results should even be relied on given differences in student populations and numbers of students who leave those schools early to return to BPS (I’ll say more about that further down).

Successful charters are not scalable

One of the biggest problems that I see with the idea that expanding charter schools improves options is that many of the most successful charters are based in practices that are not replicable on a large scale which is why they have not been copied within BPS, some examples:

-Charters tend to have policies that don’t have wide community support: Many schools get great results from students with very strict and inflexible policies on uniform, homework, attendance and conformity to minute classroom behaviors (e.g. everyone track the teacher with your eyes), and public display of individual student performance. I don’t at all dispute the usefulness of these practices, but they only work when put in place in a community that is selecting into them. These types of policies do not tend to survive larger public input or legal challenges which is why BPS and other districts usually have such watered down versions that the policies fall apart with things like “voluntary” uniforms, etc. Charter schools do not have to answer as directly to the public because the schools are few and small and often considered experimental, but already there are families “ending up” at charters after not getting BPS lottery choices rather than “choosing” these schools–expanding the number of charter schools brings us closer to the day when these strategies are challenged in a larger way.

-Charters tend to have policies that push/keep families out
I am not the cynic who believes that all charter schools design admissions and discipline policies to keep out the tougher or lower performing students, but I do believe that many charter schools have policies that have this effect regardless of their intent. I believe, for example, that charters that suspend students often do use this with the intent of turning around behavior and that this works really well for many of their students. The problem is that those same suspensions will also cause some parents to leave the school because they can’t afford to take the time off from work to support this policy. This is also true of schools with regular early release days–these policies limit which families can afford to have children attend the school.

-Charters don’t serve the most vulnerable children
This is the biggest sticking point for me on believing in the successes of charter schools: as much as there has been true concerted effort on increasing equity among schools, charter schools do not serve the same students as the districts. I’ll put aside the discussion about Special Education and English Language Learners who are under-served by charter schools because others have said this. My biggest concern is actually around more subtle and less counted student characteristics. Even as charter schools gain students who, on paper, fit the same demographics as BPS, what stands out to me above all other factors is that students at charter schools all needed someone to have signed them up on time for the first round of the lottery. For 11 years of my teaching career, I worked at a BPS high school, and a vast majority of my most vulnerable students (the students who had the hardest time with school) didn’t get their names on lists for the first round of the lottery because, often the students having the hardest time with school are from families that don’t know how to support school success. The students whose families don’t know how to navigate school are registered and placed at the last minute or have instability that causes them to shift schools mid-year. In my previous school, the turnover rate of my students was right around 50% every year–meaning I’d end the year with about the same number of students, but half of them would be different kids than the ones who started the year with me in September. Charter schools are filling their seats from the first round of the lottery and back-filling seats only from that first round lottery list. My students did make wonderful progress in their time at the school, but comparing data from schools with students whose families act early on school decisions with those who don’t (or can’t) sets up an unequal comparison from the start. We don’t have true data on what a charter can do versus a regular district school because in many ways, they are never serving all of the same students. That’s why I feel that charters are really an untested gamble in education. Allison mentioned this problem earlier in this thread, and she mentioned the proposed Unified Enrollment as a potential solution. Even without Unified Enrollment, if enough district schools disappear students will end up in charters without choosing them because they will be the only schools with seats. The problem with that is that we don’t know how these schools will do with students who didn’t choose into their policies and methods. We don’t know what will happen when kids can’t choose to drop back into BPS (which happens in a steady stream throughout the year) and/or when charters begin to face more community pressure and legal challenges to the discipline and classroom policies that get them their success.

My last objection to rapid expansion of charters is the one where I feel I probably have the least amount of credibility since I am a union member teacher, but if you’ve read this far and want to hear it, I’ll make my case:

Charter expansion is harmful to the long-term outlook of the teaching profession

There are many differences in philosophies, curricula, schedules, etc. across charter schools, and these are often touted as the reason we need charters, but BPS has again and again invented new types of schools that allow for all of these to be tried: pilot schools, innovation schools, etc. BPS has even increased its power to hire and fire teachers at will.The one feature that is truly distinct that charter schools and that BPS cannot do (yet) is pay teachers less and work them longer hours. Beyond my own self-interest, I do think that this lower pay for longer hours is bad for these charter schools and bad for the larger teaching profession because these working conditions tend to be unsustainable.

My husband starting teaching at a charter school, the one my daughter now attends, over a decade ago. We love the school, and at one point he explored returning there to work, but now that we have been teaching over a decade and have kids and a mortgage, he cannot afford to go back to that, or any similar charter because the pay cut would be so significant. What this means, functionally, is that most charter schools are operating with a faculty that is very young and that does not stay at the school long. They burn them out and they leave. The ones who want to keep teaching tend to seek better pay and job security in district schools, and the rest leave teaching for a “better” career. As a career teacher and as a parent, this leaves me concerned about the gaps in knowledge and experience within these schools, and it also leaves me really concerned about the mentality many of these teachers carry about their job and their students. Lowering pay and increasing hours changes the face of teaching, and I’m seeing more and more of what I call “missionaries”–teachers who view their job, not as a profession, but as a charity work they do for a year or two before they find a real job. That is not the mentality I want from the person teaching my child or anyone’s child, but I think it’s a growing mentality as we keep shrinking our district schools and shrinking the pool of experienced teachers while opening more and more schools staffed by largely new, inexperienced and low-paid teachers.

I’m going to stop myself there since this post is already far too long, but it is really hard to do justice to any of this issue briefly. As an exam school teacher, I teach students from middle and elementary schools all over BPS, from many of the charter schools, as well as from parochial, independent and home schools. I think all have their strengths and all can be good options for our kids. I’m sorry that I’m not capturing all of the nuance of my view here, but I’m just trying to focus on my reasons for opposing Question 2. I hope the conversation will continue. I am very happy to see not only both sides represented but lots of people expressing how torn they are. This is the conversation that needs to happen, and it seldom happens as openly or respectfully as it has so far on this thread.

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