Why the school choice model from Massachusetts works

Why the school choice model from Massachusetts works
© Getty Images

Just as there are ideologues who see nothing good in charter schools, there are those who believe these same schools can do no wrong and that the righteousness of the rebellion against dysfunctional American public schools insulates charter schools from self-criticism.

We are among the most vocal proponents of charter schools and we worked together on the legislation that brought them into being in Massachusetts. Our passion for educational reform remains intact, but we also believe that too many U.S. charter schools have grown complacent, replicating the mediocre achievement of traditional district schools in many jurisdictions.

ADVERTISEMENT

While there are exceptional charter schools in New York City and Washington, D.C., the results produced by Massachusetts charters are in a class of their own. A Stanford University study found that Boston charters are doing more to close poverty- and race-based achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country.  Statewide, charter schools in Massachusetts significantly outperform traditional public schools, which themselves are the highest-performing in the nation. 

Such outstanding results didn’t happen by accident and states with struggling charter sectors can draw lessons from Massachusetts. Based on our experience, here’s what we believe these other schools should — and should not — do in their pursuit of excellence.

The recipe for high-performing charter schools begins with the combination of real autonomy and strict accountability. Schools should be able to organize around a distinct approach or mission and be free to extend the school day and/or year if they wish. If, for instance, a school wants to send kindergartners home at 4PM instead of noon, they should be able to do so. Schools should also be encouraged to develop innovative programs to hire, train and retain teachers.

Yet along with this autonomy, schools must also be held to account for their results. If they perform poorly, there must be consequences. If not, how is a charter school different from a district school? With regard to accountability, Massachusetts has revoked the charters of five underachieving schools and declined to renew two more when their five-year term expired. Across America, we find that too many charter schools operate without fear of the consequences of their licenses being revoked for underperformance, or worse.

Funding for charter schools should mirror that of other public schools as closely as possible. In most jurisdictions, charters receive far less than their district counterparts. On paper at least, Massachusetts provides charters with equitable operating funds and eases the burden on districts that lose students and funding to charter schools by providing partial reimbursements over six years for “lost” students.

We believe, however, that the treatment of charter schools in Massachusetts could be improved in certain respects. Although the state provides charters with equitable operating funds, they receive far less capital money than traditional public schools. The resulting need to use operating dollars for facilities means charter schools aren’t really funded at the same level as their district counterparts.

And while state law provides districts that lose students to charter schools with partial reimbursements, they are not part of the school funding formula and are therefore subject to legislative appropriation. Failure to fully fund reimbursements in recent years has caused financial hardship for some districts and needlessly increased political opposition to charters, notwithstanding their impressive performance.

Massachusetts has also begun to enact policies that limit charter school innovation. When the state raised the cap on charter seats in its lowest-performing school districts in 2010, it required that any new charter seats in excess of the old cap be in schools operated by “proven providers” that have already run successful charter schools in the state. As a result, the very schools that were originally intended to be a source of new ideas are — although still successful — now largely urban schools employing an unvarying, even formulaic, educational approach. 

Finally, political opponents have, over time, succeeded in subjecting charter schools to a number of the same regulatory barriers traditional public schools face. Given the degree to which charters outperform district schools in Massachusetts, it would surely be wiser to make those district schools more like charters than the other way around.

Charter schools have had some notable successes, improving and enlivening American education. If policy makers want those successes to be experienced more broadly, they would do well to draw lessons from Massachusetts — both in terms of what the state does right and where changes could be helpful.

William F. Weld is the former Massachusetts governor and the principal at ML Strategies in Boston. Thomas F. Birmingham is the former Massachusetts Senate president and the distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute in Boston.