Student Protesters Lend voice to Debate over Charter School Ballot Question

Mar 7, 2016Council in the News, State House News Service

By Katie Lannan

Mark Gallagher of the Massachusetts High Technology Council said there could be an economic advantage to charter school expansion.

“Our members tell us the same thing all the time: I have a hard time getting the people I need with the right education and skills, but if they have those skills those people can write their own ticket,” he said. “We need to put more people in the position to do that. We believe a continuing improvement in public education including the public charter schools is the key to that.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a self-described “ally of charter public schools,” found common ground Monday with some of the students who walked out of his city’s district schools in a protest over funding, as each spoke in opposition to a ballot initiative that would lift the cap on charter schools.

The petition (H 3928), which would allow the authorization of up to 12 new charter schools or charter expansions a year, came before the Legislature’s Education Committee for a hearing, drawing testimony from educators, parents and students, many with experience in Boston’s public school system.

Reiterating a request he made of the committee at an October hearing for a more gradual increase in charter capacity, Walsh said he supports lifting the state’s cap on charter schools, but not the “aggressive expansion” proposed in the ballot question.

[Photos: Charter Testimony]

“To put it simply, this proposal does not provide for the sustainable charter school growth that its proponents seek,” Walsh said. “Instead, it would wreak havoc on municipal finances, undermining our ability to support either new or existing schools in Boston. For this reason, I respectfully urge the Legislature to take up more comprehensive reform legislation. I don’t exaggerate when I say the fate of public education in the city of Boston depends on it.”

Backed by a coalition known as Great Schools Massachusetts, the question that could appear on November’s ballot takes a similar approach to lifting the cap as legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker. The proposals have generated heated debate between proponents and critics, with each side’s argument often coming back to efforts to close achievement gaps. Assertions that charter schools provide educational opportunities to students who would otherwise lack access to them are countered by claims that diverting funds to charters squeezes districts that are already struggling financially.

Hundreds of Boston Public Schools students walked out of class on Monday to protest a tight city education budget and potential programmatic cuts in the next school year. After rallying on the Boston Common, more than 20 of the students joined the Education Committee hearing, where some testified in support of increasing funding for their schools and in opposition to charter expansion.

“By lifting the cap on charter schools and cutting the budget for BPS kids, you create a culture war where BPS kids realize their education is limited and their resources are limited because of the charter school situation in an us-versus-them scenario,,” said Clark Lacossade, a Boston Latin Academy junior who said he was concerned his Arabic and advanced placement music theory classes would be cut.

Latin Academy student government president Andrianne Dao said one student’s access to a quality education “should not come at a detriment to another.”

“We cannot open more charter schools while our public schools deteriorate,” she said.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the committee’s Senate chair, told the students that the state underfunded Boston’s charter school reimbursement by about $10 million. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said Monday he was focused on securing an increase in state funding for charter reibursements, but was also interested in seeing Chapter 70 aid bolstered when the Legislature debates it’s budget later in the spring.

“I want to make sure that you have a full sense of the challenges facing BPS,” Chang-Diaz said. “The underfunding of the charter reimbursement account is one component of that, but it’s not all of it.”

Students and others opposed to the charter expansion wore yellow stickers bearing the slogan “Public Funds for Public Schools.” On the other side of the auditorium, pro-charter parents wore blue t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Great Schools Now.”

“Having been on both sides of the equation myself, the difference between district schools and charter schools for my children has been clear,” said Margela Olivier-Galette, a Boston mother who has children both in charter schools and district schools. “The education they have received at KIPP Academy and Roxbury Prep [charter schools] is simply head and shoulders above the education they have received at Boston Public Schools.”

Mark Gallagher of the Massachusetts High Technology Council said there could be an economic advantage to charter school expansion.

“Our members tell us the same thing all the time: I have a hard time getting the people I need with the right education and skills, but if they have those skills those people can write their own ticket,” he said. “We need to put more people in the position to do that. We believe a continuing improvement in public education including the public charter schools is the key to that.”

Asked by Sen. Patricia Jehlen if the council would support “full funding of an improved foundation budget” in order to “improve schools for all children,” Gallagher said his group has not taken a formal stance but would look into the issue more thoroughly.

Chang-Diaz called his answer “extremely disappointing and frustrating.”

“To be blunt, it undercuts your credibility to say that you’re here in support of quality education for all students without taking a position” on fully funding the foundation budget, she said.

Gallagher said the council takes its positions “based on what our members ask us to take positions on and based on what they ask us to prioritize.”

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