Monday, March 9, 2015

Legal Assault on Public Ed in Boston

“Boston’s public charter schools are helping students succeed. But to get into one of the city’s public charter schools, kids literally have to win the lottery. Kids should not have to be lucky to get an adequate education,” said Paul Ware, a partner at Goodwin Procter and former chairman of the firm’s litigation department. “It’s time for action to ensure that all students in Boston have stronger educational opportunities.”

That quote might lead one to expect that the next words out of Ware's mouth might be, "So we will going to court to insure that every public school in the Boston has the resources and support necessary for success." But it turns out that March is Opposites Month in Boston, and so what actually happens next is that three big time law firms are going to court to strip more resources from Boston Public Schools.

Paul F. Ware Jr., Michael B. Keating, and William F. Lee, partners at top Boston law firms, are planning to file a lawsuit on behalf of children who want to attend charter schools but allegedly didn't win Boston's charter school lottery. Charter students reportedly make up 4% of total students in Massachusetts; presumably the other 96% will just have to go round up lawyers of their own.

Boston has hit its limit of 34 charter schools. Last summer the legislature declined to add to that. This dance over charter caps is an annual ritual in the pilgrim state, where resistance to charters can become spirited (a quick google turned up two previous charter-related lawsuits, filed in order to keep charters out of communities). Feelings in MA have been rather split among voters when it comes to charters, with no strong groundswell of charter support on which to hang a political hat.

So now, lawyers will be trying the civil rights argument, claiming that those students who are not getting to escape public schools are having their civil rights violated. Civil rights violations affecting the students still in public schools, such as having their schools inadequately funded, or having more of their funding sucked away by charters-- these are apparently not the kind of civil rights violations that concern these lawyers.

Mark Kenen of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association thinks the suit is swell and that it fits their thirty-year argument that charters should be allowed to flourish.

This argument rests on the assertion that charters have been successful. That's a tough argument to back up. Attempts to provide data and support lead to pieces like this one at Edushyster in which some fairly simple number crunching leads to the conclusion that Boston charters are producing about three male graduates per charter per year.

The worry this time is that the lawsuit will be filed against state secretary of education James A. Peyser who, like his boss Governor Charlie Baker, feels the charter love to his very core. I suppose it's theoretically possible that this is all sock puppet theater, leading quickly to the moment where Peyser and Baker declare themselves forced by the courts to do exactly what they couldn't get permission for from the legislature. In other words, public ed proponents are worried that the defense against this lawsuit might not be very spirited, or even life-like.

It's a troubling argument to repeatedly encounter-- the notion that the state has a moral obligation to allow the rescue of some students in a manner that simultaneously strips other, apparently less-worthy students, of the resources and support needed for their schools. This is lawsuit to demand that the state rob Peter in order to help Paul turn a charter profit.

There are moral and civil rights issues at play here, but they are aligned precisely opposite of where the charter supporters wish to display them. If rich lawyers want to get up in arms about the civil rights of students, my recommendation is that they stand up for all students, even the ones who aren't trying to get into charter schools. 


  1. More subtly, to the extent Massachusetts does have a successful charter sector compared to other states, there's good reason to think that it is due to limiting the number of charters. That's also true about Rhode Island, which is one reason you don't hear Rhode Island being held up as a model by charter advocates, despite the relatively high quality of our (still fairly small) charter sector.

  2. Paul Ware represented Countrywide Mortgage in the financial meltdown.
    Michael Keating is Chair of the Board at The Boston Foundation, which donated $1 million to NewSchools Ventures Funds for charters. Not so civil-rightsy.