Massachusetts Governor Baker and the Charter School Question on the Ballot: Has the 2020 Presidential Election Begun?

“I will be voting no on Question 2 … I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.” Elizabeth Warren in the Boston Globe, 9/26/16

“Donors to the pro-charter school campaign include two prominent millionaires – former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg who contributed $240,000 and Jim Walton of Arizona, the son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, who contributed more than $1.1 million.” WCVB, 9/10/16

The Manhattan Institute hosted Governor Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of a blue state, Massachusetts, and one of the most popular governors in the nation.  The Governor traipsed down from Boston to defend Question 2 on the Massachusetts ballot – a proposal to allow the creation of 12 additional charter schools a year, sites to be determined by the state.

The proposal is highly controversial in Massachusetts and across the nation.

What is perplexing is why the governor of the state with the best educational system in the nation would expend so much political capital on a contentious and highly questionable proposition.

If Massachusetts was considered a nation it would be at the top of the world in educational attainment.

Forbes reports,

… if Massachusetts were allowed to report subject scores independently — much the way that, say, Shanghai is allowed to do so — the Bay State would rank 9th in the world in Math Proficiency, tied with Japan, and on the heels of 8th-ranked Switzerland. In reading, Massachusetts would rank fourth in the world, tied with Hong Kong, and not far behind third-ranked Finland.

How Massachusetts raised itself to the top of the state heap is straightforward, the Education Reform Act of 1993, frequently referred to as the “Grand Bargain.”

“We will make a massive infusion of progressively distributed dollars into our public schools, and in return, we demand high standards and accountability from all education stakeholders. This grand bargain is the cornerstone of education reform.”

The law provided the following,

1) Curriculum frameworks in each subject; (View the frameworks here)

2) State testing – the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System:  View MCAS test items here)

3) State tests for graduation, which students could take beginning in the tenth grade, and which they were given multiple opportunities to retake until they passed;

4) More time for instruction;

5) Entry tests for new teachers;

6) A new foundation budget that raised funding across the state, especially in high-needs districts;

7) 22 charter schools for the entire state (currently there about 75).

It is also noteworthy that the state increased early childhood education funding by 247% between 1996 and 1999.

The combination of an equitable funding formula, highly regarded standards and rigorous entry standards for teachers resulted in very impressive outcomes.

When the Massachusetts legislature failed to raise the charter cap pro charter folk collected enough signatures to put the question on the ballot. The battle for and against the question has been extremely costly, millions of dollars poured into the ballot question. Polls give the “no” votes a slim lead within the margin of error.

The Governor based his support on ending the suburban versus urban achievement gap.  Baker proffered that the 75 or so charter schools in Massachusetts, mostly in high poverty cities were outperforming public schools.  Scott claimed the longer school day and school year resulted in 50% greater instructional time, and, was the primary reason for the higher test scores. To a question about high suspension rates and high attrition rates in charter schools Scott pushed back, sort of.  From what I heard from Baker charter schools had higher graduation rates, among the students who remained.

To my question: whether he agreed with Jeb Bush that all parent should be given a voucher to choose any type of school, public, charter, independent,  Baker punted. “I’m only concerned with the question before the voters.”

Baker failed to address the core question: if charter schools are doing better than similarly situated public schools, why are they more successful?  There is no evidence that the longer school day and school year equals higher test scores. In fact, charter schools vary widely in achievement. Baker argued that the pre-screening of new charter school applicants and the closing of struggling charters was working well.

I am not familiar with the charter school data from Massachusetts.  In New York State charter schools vary greatly in quality and the charter schools with the highest achievement also raise significant dollars through philanthropy. High suspension rates and attrition; maybe forcing out the lowest achievers, impact test scores, and appears to be the norm.

Some of the charter networks are highly organized with high quality materials and low teacher-student ratios, others, struggle to meet payrolls.

If there is a “secret sauce,” I’m unaware of it.

I listened to a discussion, a public school teacher asked a charter school parent, “Do you know that charter schools force out discipline problems and low achievers?” The charter school parent replied, “Yes, that’s why I send my children to a charter school.”

Yes, charter schools select students by lottery; however, the parents who participate in the lottery are parents with greater social capital. The parents who do not participate in the lottery, who are unaware of charter schools may be parents with less ability to assist their own children.

Are charter schools a triage model?

Do charter schools effectively “cream” the most able students? Do charter schools educate the “talented tenth?”

… in 1903 in a book called The Negro Problem, W. E. B. DuBois wrote:  “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”

Charter school devotees seem to be saying, and Baker fits into the scenario: the lottery divides parents into those that are aware of the lottery and others who are not; charter schools enforce strict discipline and force out those that don’t conform to the model and don’t enroll, to the extent possible, children with special needs. Charter schools are far more successful that public schools in the same catchment area, basically they are a triage model, a sort of “talented tenth;” however, if it wasn’t for charter schools all children would be receiving an unsatisfactory education. In a way we are a magnet school type option, and, we have put pressure on the local schools to improve in order to compete with us. We may not be “fair” to the neighborhood schools; our model is more than fair for the children we serve.

Not Baker’s words, clearly what Baker implied.

Why would a highly popular governor involve himself in a highly divisive fight?  Cuomo picked a fight with teachers, passed a number of anti-teacher laws, engaged in a war of words, lost the war, and is still scrambling to regain his credibility among teachers and parents.

I believe, maybe totally off base, that Baker is establishing a place on the Republican spectrum; the 2016 Republican contenders became pretenders. He is creating a place for a Romney/Reagan Republican appealing to the “old” Republican Party and the right of center Democrats.  When asked about the Affordable Care Act he acknowledged problems and saw the solutions among the governors.  He did not trash the law as others Republicans have taken as a reflex action.

His support of the question on the ballot is simply checking a box on the potential presidential candidate checklist.

He is a thoughtful, engaging speaker, and, quite popular in a state dominated by Democrats. The 2020 presidential race has begun before the 2016 race has ended.

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