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Charter School Camp Launches “Facts” Campaign

Feb 12, 2016Council in the News, State House News Service

By Katie Lannan

Arguing that the debate over expanding access to charter schools in Massachusetts has been characterized by misinformation and misleading statements, charter supporters on Friday launched a new campaign they say debunks myths about the schools.

The center of the “Fact Check: Public Charter Schools in Massachusetts” campaign is a new
website, unveiled Friday, that showcases research and data analysis supporting charter schools.

Groups behind the website include the Race to the Top Coalition, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, the Boston Charter Alliance, the Massachusetts High Tech Council and Great Schools Massachusetts, the coalition backing a ballot question that would allow the authorization of up to 12 new charters per year.

“It has become increasingly clear that there is still a basic misunderstanding of what charter schools are, who they serve, and how they are funded,” Massachusetts Charter Public School Association president Beth Anderson said Friday during a State House press conference attended by Gov. Charlie Baker. “The purpose of the Fact Check campaign is simple: to ensure that our policymakers engaging in this debate, especially the folks upstairs here, and any Massachusetts citizen looking to educate themselves about charter schools have the facts, not opinions, not half-truths, not things that are completely untrue, but facts.”

[Watch: Video Clips From Press Conference]

As advocates, including Baker, have sought to raise the cap on the number of charter schools — public schools that operate independently from local districts and school committees — opponents have called for a focus on the state’s district schools and improving public education more broadly.

Critics fired back Friday with claims that the information on the “Fact Check” site can be misleading.

“If they really want to talk about the facts, we’re more than willing to talk about the facts,” said Massachusetts Jobs with Justice Director Russ Davis, a member of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance Coalition. He said his group has produced or is working on several reports relating to charter schools, including one looking at the financing of the ballot campaign and an upcoming analysis of the membership of charter school boards.

Throughout the debate, the two sides have cited conflicting studies related to charter schools, including reports on the performance, enrollment and attrition rates of English language learners, special-needs students and children from low-income families.

“Now I get the fact that this is a heated conversation,” Baker said. “Politics is kind of like that, but this conversation ought to be based on facts and data and families and kids and what the right and best thing we can do for children should be.”

Students are accepted into charter schools via random lottery, with interested applicants who do not win a seat placed on a waitlist. The size of the waitlist has been another center for dispute, with proponents often referring to 37,000 students on the list.

Auditor Suzanne Bump has countered that claim, citing a December 2014 audit in which she found waiting list numbers were “significantly overstated” because children were on multiple lists and names were sometimes rolled forward from year to year without verification.

The new website includes a tab described as a “fact check” of the waitlist numbers, linking to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data from May 2015 that shows 37,470 students, of which 5,819 appeared on more than one waitlist.

“The reality is that demand for charter schools is overwhelming, and the Auditor’s report did more to support this fact than refute it,” the website reads.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and an opponent of charter expansion, said her understanding of the auditor’s report is that it “says we don’t know” the true number of students seeking charter seats.

“I find it kind of fascinating that even the governor continues to support the 37,000 number that the auditor makes very clear is at best unknown and at worst an exaggeration,” she said.

Bump released a statement Friday afternoon, saying that she had hoped the 2014 audit would “provide meaningful, unbiased, and complete data” for the charter school debate.

“However, the lack of complete data when conducting this audit made it impossible to provide the tool my office sought to develop,” Bump said. “When incomplete information is presented as fact, as is the case by this campaign, policymakers are not afforded the ability to make unbiased decisions and the public is misled. The education of our children is too important to base these important decisions on misleading information.”

Baker referenced the questions around the waitlist size in his remarks Friday.

“The clock is ticking,” Baker said. “Every year that goes by — and I don’t really care if the number is 37,000, 34,000, 35,000, 33,000 or 32,000 — thousands of Massachusetts families who simply only want the same thing for their kids that I and my wife got for ours, which is a high quality education…is not just a missed opportunity for someone, it’s a lost opportunity. A lost opportunity for kids and families who in this great state of ours deserve better.”

The initiative petition on charter school expansion was scheduled for a legislative hearing on Feb. 8, but the hearing was postponed because of snow. Baker has also filed similar legislation seeking to lift the charter cap.

Legislation that would have allowed a limited increase in charter schools passed the House last session but failed in the Senate. A group of senators is now working to craft a broader charter school reform bill that would also address issues including the funding mechanism.

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