Boston Politics Halt Charter School Growth

September 26, 2013

Imagine you live in a city with a set of open-enrollment public schools, serving predominantly low-income children of color, where students learn at twice the rate of their peers in neighboring schools. And what if those high-performing schools were ready, willing and able to enroll more students, maybe even double or triple in size? Well, that city actually exists, and it's Boston. But, remarkably, the powers that be are blocking the city's best schools from growing for the simple reason that they are charter schools, says James A. Peyser, managing partner for city funds in the NewSchools Venture Fund's Boston office.

Unfortunately, the growing chorus of charter supporters has had little influence to date on the one decision maker who really counts -- the mayor. Boston's public schools are governed by a school committee that is appointed by the mayor, so effectively Mayor Thomas M. Menino has had control over Boston Public Schools for the past 20 years.

Two types of charter schools operate in Massachusetts:

  • Horace Mann charter schools are effectively "in-district" charters whose applications must first be approved by a host school district and, with a few exceptions, the local teachers union.
  • Commonwealth charter schools, in contrast, are fully independent of the local school district.

Although Commonwealth charters are authorized by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and subject to most state laws and regulations governing public schools, they are exempt from certain regulations related to teacher certification and tenure, and they are free from the confines of any preexisting collective-bargaining agreements.

Not surprisingly, most Massachusetts school districts, including Boston's, tend to support more Horace Mann charter schools but oppose any increase in the Commonwealth variety, since Horace Mann charters provide host districts with a great deal of discretion and ongoing oversight authority.

In March 2013, Menino announced that he would not seek reelection in November 2013, ending an unprecedented 20-year run. About a month later, Boston Public Schools superintendent Carol Johnson announced that she would leave her post at the end of July 2013. Vacancies in these two offices create an opportunity for resetting the district-charter relationship and moving Boston closer toward a reform strategy that takes full advantage of the city's remarkable charter schools.

Source: James A. Peyser, "Boston and the Charter School Cap," Education Next, Winter 2014.

 

Browse more articles on Education Issues