GUEST COMMENTARY: Charters, Brookline & Bridgespan

Brookline Tab - June 2, 2016

In the past six months, some forty Massachusetts school committees or town governments (or both) have stated their strong opposition to the lifting of the charter school cap in next November’s ballot initiative. The Brookline school committee is not among them. I have now written two letters to the committee trying to find out why, but have received no reply.

Why should Brookline care about the charter question?

Charters–quasi-independent and privately-run schools– were created as laboratories of innovation by the Education Reform Act of 1993. Unfortunately, no institutional mechanisms were created to facilitate the sharing of any innovations with the public schools. (That many public systems like Brookline are more innovative than test-prep oriented charters is another matter all together). Over the past twenty years, charters have developed into a dual school system, now serving 4% of the state’s students, with enrollment figures increasing each year. Currently, these schools received 10% of state Chapter 70 dollars. This means that about $420 million in public monies are now being diverted from public school districts. Additional funding is lost because of an inadequate state reimbursement formula and the failure to fully fund the help promised to school districts when students transfer to charters.

The financial consequences for the public schools are severe.  Here are a few examples: In FY16, Boston will lose almost $122 million to charter schools; Cambridge, $11.3 million; Somerville, $7 million; Malden, $8.4 million; Everett, $5.8 million; Framingham, $4.1 million. Most recently, Brockton suffered a $10 million hit when the state approved a charter school that town leaders did not feel was needed.

More information about charter schools and their implications for the public system can be found at the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) web site:

So apart from caring about the plight of our neighbors in other towns, how is Brookline affected by the charter cap controversy?

The wording of the upcoming charter cap ballot measure does not preclude charters from choosing Brookline as a site. Their presence in this district would stress our already strained school budget and undercut democratic control over our town’s schools. Most importantly, if the cap is raised and even more money flows from public districts to charters–that is, schools that localities did not invite, do not want, and cannot control–the future of public education will itself be imperiled. This is no exaggeration. In the words of the Wareham school board chairman, charters are “blood-sucking” the public schools.

Given the threat that our schools are facing, I’ve wondered why the Brookline school committee, whose members are charged with nurturing and protecting our public system, has chosen not to join with other school committees across the state in opposing the cap lift.  Why the silence?

A commentary that appeared in this space last week may provide the answer. The authors noted that three members of the school committee are associated with the Bridgespan consulting group. This enterprise is part of an extensive nationwide web of foundations, corporations, think tanks, business lobbies, and advocacy groups that promote an education reform agenda based on high stakes testing, relentless data collection, and privatization. Some of these self-styled reformers sincerely believe their ideas will improve education (though most often for other people’s children). Still others are drawn to this agenda for more ideological reasons. They seek to privatize all things “public”­–and they want to destroy unions

Currently, our state board of education is essentially controlled by privatizers who serve charter interests. Our governor, Charlie Baker, is an enthusiastic charter advocate, as is his secretary of education, James Peyser (both men were former directors of the Koch-financed Pioneer Institute); so too, the chairman of the board, businessman Paul Sagan and the commissioner, Mitchell Chester, a leading proponent of the Common Core.

What exactly is the relationship between Bridgespan and our school committee? In the future, all school committee candidates must be asked to explain where they stand in relation to the major issues facing our public schools. It’s our responsibility as citizens to ask those hard questions and to expect candid answers.
Meanwhile, if our school committee won’t speak out on the charter cap lift, as their colleagues did in Cambridge just last week, they can at least respond to letters sent to them by their constituents, fellow taxpayers, and neighbors. Now more than ever, we need dialogue about the kind education our kids will receive.

Bill Schechter is the parent of two children who attended the Brookline schools. He taught at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S. for 35 years and is a proud graduate of DeWitt Clinton H.S. in the Bronx.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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