As a progressive Democrat in a heavily Democratic state with one of the best charter public school sectors in the country, I have witnessed the transformation in public schools when the needs of children and families take priority over entrenched bureaucratic interests and special interest organizations.
Massachusetts has a long history of innovation in education, which is one reason why our public schools rank number one on national assessments. Getting here was truly a bipartisan effort. A Democratic legislature and a series of Republican and Democratic governors joined together to pass laws and craft regulations that raised standards, established strong accountability systems, and supported new educational models, including charter public schools.
Our number one ranking, however, masks a dark reality for too many students, especially those in urban, low-income families. Massachusetts has the third largest achievement gap in the nation based on family income, and that gap is growing.
In urban districts across the state, charter public schools are the most effective in closing that achievement gap, often dramatically. Recent data collected by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education demonstrate how urban charters are producing incredible academic results for disadvantaged children.
While the achievement gap in urban district schools sits at 34 percentage points for African-American students, that gap in urban charters is 10 percentage points. In Boston, where there is a robust charter sector, the gap among African-American children attending charters is six percentage points, and Boston charters have completely closed the gap among Latino children.
This should be cause for celebration, but unfortunately, the charter debate has never been more divisive in Massachusetts following a contentious ballot question in 2016 that would have lifted enrollment caps on charters. Still, there are genuine efforts to bridge the divide, many generated by the Boston Compact, a collaboration of district, charter, and Catholic schools educating Boston’s children. Boston Public Schools and Boston charter schools have completed professional development to support English Language Learners, launched joint career fairs to recruit more African-American and Latino teachers, aligned bell times to save millions of dollars in busing costs, and initiated teachers visits between schools to share best practices.
In Lawrence, the state-appointed receiver invited several charter operators to help manage the struggling district schools, create an alternative high school that focuses on dropouts, partner on an early childhood learning center, and replicate a successful tutoring program.
This is what is possible when school leaders and teachers act in the best interest of children.
Charter schools in Massachusetts have shown that the correlation between family income and student academic achievement is not immutable. They have proven that childhood poverty does not have to be a barrier to learning. Employing innovative methods to help poor children overcome obstacles, charters are run by dedicated and mission-driven teachers and leaders who set high standards and provide support to help students achieve them.
Charter schools come from the simple idea that children are entitled to a high-quality public education no matter what community they live in—rich, poor, or in between. That’s not such a radical idea—nor is it a partisan one. It’s a fundamental progressive value.
Marty Walz is a former Democratic state representative from Boston and was the Chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education in 2009-2010.