Wednesday, August 10, 2016

MA: The Swift Boating of Public Schools

Massachusetts is heating up. Perhaps no state has better exemplified the fierce debate between public school advocates and fans of modern education reform. Ed reformers captured the governor's seat, the mayoral position of Boston, commissioner of education, and the secretary of education offices, and yet have consistently run into trouble since the day they convinced the commonwealth to abandon its previous education standards in favor of the Common Core Standards-- which were rated inferior to the Massachusetts standards even by the guys paid to promote the Core.

These days the debate has shifted to the issue of charter schools. Specifically, the charter cap. Currently Massachusetts has a limit on how many charter schools can operate in the Pilgrim state. The people who make a living in the charter biz would like to see that cap lifted, and the whole business will be put to a public referendum in November.

So well-heeled charter fans have collected a few million dollars, and they have hired DC-based SRCP Media, most famous for the Swift Boat campaign that sank John Kerry's candidacy. The Swift Boat campaign was also a demonstration of the fine old political rule, "When the truth is not on your side, construct a new truth."

So is SRCP manufacturing truth in Massachusetts?

Spoiler alert: Yes.

It appears that the multi-million dollar ad buy will lean on that old favorite-- charter schools are public schools. And when I say "favorite," what I actually mean is "lie." But let's look at the whole thirty seconds.

We open with a Mrs. Ingall, who is listed as a "public school teacher." That would be Dana Ingall, a teacher at the Match Charter School, whose bio says that she attended University of Michigan, joined Teach for America in 2011, was sent to Delaware and Harlem, and earned an Elementary Ed Degree from Wilmington University. She hasn't been in Boston long.

But she still knows how to say "Massachusetts public charter schools are among the best in the country," which is sort of true, if all you care about are test scores, and you're cool with charters that keep their test scores high by suspending huge numbers of students, carefully avoiding any challenging students (like the non-English speaking ones),  and chasing out those who don't get great scores.

"Our charter schools are public," says Ingall. And she seems like a nice person, so I will assume that someone at SRCP handed her a script and told her to repeat that lie. We'll come back to it in a bit. She goes on to note that charters have longer school days and a "proven record" of helping students in underperforming areas "succeed" which, again, doesn't mean anything except "get a good test score." I also like the careful distinction of helping students in underperforming areas, which is less impressive than helping students from underperforming areas or, since we're claiming to be a public school, helping ALL students from that area.

Then Voice Over Man comes on to tell us that Question 2 will expand charter school access and "result in more funding for public school" which probably refers to the state funding formula. When Chris goes to a charter, the per-pupil money follows Chris, but an amount is paid to Chris's public school, to soften the financial blow. Massachusetts' formula is probably the best in the nation-- but that "increase in education spending" would be on the order of a billion dollar. Which means one of a couple of things would happen-- either the taxpayers would be asked to cover that billion-dollar payout by raising taxes, or the state would find the billion in charter cost coverage by cutting some other part of education spending. So, for instance, Pat doesn't get to go to pre-school because the state has to pay to send Chris to a charter. Any way you cut it, the cost of sending Chris to a private school will be felt by taxpayers and public education.

Oh, and Chapter 46, the law under which all that reimbursing happens-- it has never not been fully funded in the past several years*, so local districts have to make up the difference. When Chris goes to charter school, the local taxpayers have to kick in to pay for it. [Update: Courtesy of Save Our Public Schools MA, here's a more detailed look at just how underfunded charter reimbursement of public schools is-- and will be]

Ingall returns to say "Every parent should be able to choose the school that's best for their child," but all the charter expansion in the world will not result in that scenario. It is already clear that Massachusetts' system of charterizing allows charters to choose which students they would like. Parents are no more able to choose any school they'd like their child to attend than high school graduates are able to choose any college they'd like to attend.

Finally, the tag line-- Vote yes on 2 for stronger public schools.

The ad is bankrolled by Great Schools Massachusetts, a group that exists just to get the charter cap lifted. They are an umbrella that covers long-time reformster groups like Families for Excellent Schools, an astroturf group that fronts for Wall Street investors.

Other Swifties

Peruse the Great Schools Massachusetts site and see other examples of Totally Not Grass Roots in action. Here's the professionally filmed and staged launch of the site, featuring an appearance by Governor Baker, who talks about students stuck in bad schools in bad neighborhoods as if he had no idea, no power, no say in getting state resources to those schools in order to improve them. But no-- the only hope is to open a charter schools so that a favored few of those students can be rescued in a lifeboat made with planks from the hull of the ship that's carrying everyone else.

Or listen to Dawn tell the story of how her son was rejected by a dozen charter schools until KIPP finally accepted him. The solution to this, somehow, is more charters and not a better investment in public schools.

The Big Charter Lie

The big lie in all of this push is the suggestion, hint, or sometimes outright statement that charters are public schools.

Public schools must take-- and keep-- all students-- at any time. Charters do not. Look at the attrition rates. Look at the limited population of special needs students. Look at the suspension rates (a good way to communicate that a student is not welcome). Look at the dismal charter graduation rate for young black men.

Public schools must operate with transparency and accountability. All board meetings must be public. All financial records must be readily available to any taxpayer who asks to see them. Charters have repeatedly gone to court to assert that, like any private business, they do not have to share financial information with anyone.

Public schools must follow certain laws in dealing with employees and students. Charters do not and, again, have gone to court repeatedly to assert that they are not subject to the same rules as public schools. And while they love being able to work without a union or a contract, they are also happy to avoid following any protections for student rights. In fact, these two "freedoms" can result in teachers being fired for standing up for student rights.

Public schools must stay open and operating as long as the public demands it. Charters can close at any time they wish, and because they are businesses, they will close at times that make business sense, not times that make educational sense, or that most weigh the needs of the students.

Courts have repeatedly found that charter schools are not "public actors"

Charter investors have made it plain that they believe they are investing in a private business, not a public school, "time and time and time and time and time again." And they do it in part by turning public assets (like school buildings) into private assets.

And the thing is, virtually everybody knows this. Public school supporters, charter advocates-- virtually everyone knows that charters and public schools are not the same thing.

In fact, in the last year we've seen a rise in charter fans pushing a "Can't we all get along?" narrative. The director of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence last fall said "It is time to move past the adversarial position of 'traditional vs. charter' schools and work to create an environment where both sectors can flourish." In March, Massachusett's SouthCoast Today joined some charter chiefs in asking, "Can charter and district schools be partners in education?"

It's a change from the older trope that free market competition would drive everyone to excellence. But the two approaches have one thing in common-- they recognize that charter schools are not public schools.

Nor are they treated the same by Massachusetts, which makes sure that the charter gets every cent coming to it, but looks at the public school system and shrugs, "Talk to your local taxpayers."

Nor will things be sorted out by the free market. Charter operators already know this-- several brick and mortar charter folks have spoken up to say that the government needs to clamp down on all the crappy cyber-charters. But by their own theory, such intervention shouldn't be needed because parents will vote for quality with their feet-- but the free market doesn't work for charter schools at all, even when it is tilted to treat them one way and public schools another.

So when a long-time charter booster like Peter Cunningham, former spokesmouth for Arne Duncan's Department of Education and current word-ronin for well-heeled reform investors, writes something like "First of all, charter schools are public schools. Arguing that charters take money from traditional schools is like arguing that a younger sibling takes parental attention away from an older sibling." He knows he's shoveling baloney. It was far more honest when he tweeted

Not add to or support or enhance. Supplant. Replace.

Replace a school system with democratically-elected leadership, a system that must teach all students, a system in which taxpayers have a say, a system that comes with a long-term commitment-- replace that with a system that entitles some students to attend any private school that they can convince to accept them. And keep them. And stay open.

Are public schools perfect as is? Not even close. But the solution is not to rescue a favored few at the cost of making things worse for the many left behind. If charter advocates wanted to approach this honestly, here's what their proposal would say--

Vote to have your taxes raised to finance a new entitlement for every child to have the option of attending private school at taxpayer expense. Vote to shut down public schools and replace them with schools that aren't any better, won't serve some of your children, and aren't accountable to you, ever.

Let the swift boaters make an ad to sell that.

*Corrected from original version once I found the actual information.


  1. Nice, Peter, and thanks for all the links. One thing though: I'm not sure Chapter 46 has NEVER been fully funded. It has been underfunded multiple times for sure, but I don't know if that's always been it's history. Looking into that this week...


  2. It would be informative if there was some comparison of state averages on national tests (such as ACT or NAEP) over the last 30 years or so and correlate that with the increase in charter schools. I know that correlation may or may not infer causation but in Michigan there is no question that as the number of charter schools has increased the overall quality of public education has deteriorated. It would be interesting to look at the data of states that were resistant to allowing charter schools.

    1. David Arsen does a good job of explaining that, here, once again in the limited realm of (sigh) Michigan:

      I think it would be a data analysis nightmare, considering the number of variables and--again--using the false core metric of test scores. But prima facie evidence, in, say, Washington, would support your hypothesis.

      Just because MI was an early charter state, and charter regulation here resembles the Wild West, and because America's poster-child city for crappy ed results using any conceivable metric (Detroit) happens to be here, doesn't mean our results aren't broadly applicable, however.

      Charter schools damage whatever education ecology exists--even in the ultimate case study for charter takeover, NOLA. Terrible, underfunded schools replaced, wholesale, by charters, due to unprecedented conditions (system wipeout). The reformers' dream, come true. And the schools *still* suck, plus an entire cohort of middle class blacks--public school teachers--are displaced in the process. How can anyone interpret that as success?

      Good question.

  3. Thank you! I will be double-posting this on FB. First to my personal page, then to my union's page. It is exceptionally irksome that this particular commercial plays every 15 minutes during the Olympics coverage. I wondered if "Mrs. Ingall" was real, and Googled her. Your post is what I found. Thank you!

  4. "charters that keep their test scores high by suspending huge numbers of students,"

    I find there a link to 2012 blog posting about suspension rates, but, if one cared to, one could quickly determine that the charter school suspension rates have improved since then (still plenty of room for additional improvement)... with significant credit due, I think, to charter school critics. Looking at the first half dozen schools listed in the blog posting that Greene provides, I see that one school closed more than 3 years ago and the current suspension rates are substantially lower for all five of the others (including one that is an in-district charter that is part of the Boston Public Schools system).

    "carefully avoiding any challenging students (like the non-English speaking ones)"
    The linked blog post, in passing, references one single Boston school that has a very low rate of students who remain at any point classified as ELL.
    The demographics there are:
    African American: 66.8
    Asian 1.0
    Hispanic 25.8
    Native American 0.6
    White 4.5
    Multi-Race, Non-Hispanic 1.2

    Greene writes: "Look at the limited population of special needs students."

    In respect to both ELL and special needs classification, if one were curious to focus not just on one Boston school but rather at the impact of public charter schools throughout the city, including the one referenced above, one might wish to attend to Elizabeth Setren's research that I discussed with Andrea Gabor here:

    Greene also writes: "Look at the attrition rates." But he doesn't encourage that by providing a relevant data source, unless I missed it somewhere.

    If one wishes to look at those rates, one could examine the February 2016 "Charter School Enrollment Data
    Annual Report":

    See page 36 for example where it shows the Boston independent public charter schools with a consistently lower attrition rate than one finds in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) system.

    1. It needs to be mentioned that the charter-happy MA DESE changed the definition of attrition from "over the course of the school year" to "from the end of June to the beginning of September". The effect is that it's harder to suss out how many students leave charters (and return to the public schools) during the school year.

      Fortunately, a Boston dad has taken DESE's published data and done the calculations:

      Boston has 26 charter schools. These six represent 23% of all Boston’s charters. I used high schools because after 9th grade, charter schools in Massachusetts don't have to backfill the seats they empty by their skimming. I also had to find schools that have been around long enough to actually chart out. I think 23%, with a combined timespan of 26 years, is a fair sampling to demonstrate what’s going on here.

      Average % of Push Out per year, 2014 #of years to obtain average
      Boston Preparatory 12.5 6
      Pacific Rim 10.5 6
      Collegiate 9.5 6
      Codman 11.7 3
      City on a Hill 18 3
      MATCH 18.75 2

      Average % Pushed out Per Year, for the 6 schools, using 26 years of combined data 13.49
      26 - Total Number of years used to get 13.49% average

      Total Number of Students enrolled in Boston Charter schools in FY15 8,400

      8,400 FY15 Boston Charter Students, times 13.49% average push out = Probable total number of Boston Charter Students pushed out in FY14.

      Just by way of comparison, BPS saw a net increase of 2% of enrolled students over the same time frame.

    2. Hi laMissy

      The school-year attrition rates are actually quite easy to obtain, and for reasons discussed in the bottom half of this posting

      And in my discussion with Jersey Jazzman here:

      I don't think you should give much credence to the Boston Dad whose figures you've cited.

    3. No, I don't mean the massaged attrition rates under the new definition. I mean the numbers of students lost from each cohort year to year.

      The source I cited has taken those numbers of cohort loss directly from DESE and the explanation of the method used to arrive at his conclusion is explained above.

      Why do you feel I shouldn't give him much credence? Do you mistrust the data from the state? Or are you condescendingly impugning a Boston parent's ability to do math?

  5. BTW, if anyone really wants to dig into a wide variety of Brooke Roslindale official enrollment/attrition/school year stability/suspension figures etc. for yourself, using the latest available figures, here's one way to do it that I'd recommend:

    Go here:

    Download and open chart-indicators.xlsm
    Enable Editing if necessary
    Select Charter School of Interest e.g., Brooke Charter School - Boston (that'd be the Roslindale one)
    Select "Student Indicators" hyperlink a little to the right
    in the green bar "Please select Indicator" Select an option, e.g., Stability Rate
    "The stability rate measures how many students remain in a district or school throughout the school year."

    Scroll down and to the right to see how the Brooke Charter School's stability rate compares to all the comparison district schools and charter schools (including Brooke Mattapan and Brooke East Boston)

    Down at the bottom of the page you can use the tab to switch from "Indicators" to "Attrition"

  6. "No, I don't mean the massaged attrition rates under the new definition."

    I referred there to "school-year attrition". You had previously complained, quite justifiably, that summer attrition isn't an adequate measure. You can use the technique I suggested to get an understanding of both, using stability rate to measure the former and attrition the latter and compare results between district and charter schools.

    Boston Dad, and other prominent charter school antagonists, prefer to compare 9th and 12th grade enrollment data for charter schools vs. district schools, conveniently omitting the effects of grade-level retention and incoming transfers that alter the results in various, sometimes unpredictable, ways rendering the results unreliable.