Charter Talk

A strong education system is essential to growing the next generation of leaders and decision-makers, but there is a growing voice for more choice in education, particularly in the form of charter schools. Two state leaders heavily involved in charter school legislation, Massachusetts state Sen. Marc Pacheco and Utah state Rep. Jefferson Moss, spoke with CSG regarding student performance, lessons from other states, school governance and charter research.

How are students performing in charter schools compared to traditional public schools?

Moss: When you break out subgroups, such as students with disabilities, English learners, minority students or low-income students, charters are performing higher than district schools.  demographics obviously have a direct correlation to outcomes, but when you isolate within that subgroup there is noticeable improvement. I see charters as a choice of the best option for each
student. Some do better in different environments, although that may not be reflected in the year-end testing.
Pacheco: In Massachusetts, if you look at the system as a whole, traditional public schools outperform charter schools on average. As a state we lead the nation in many categories of student performance. Why should Massachusetts be interested in changing and heading to an alternative with so many unknowns?

What do you believe are some of the factors that determine the success or failure of a charter school?

Moss: The charters that are performing well generally have parents that are engaged, have a board that has a clear vision for the school, and have teachers that are treated as professionals. As a result, they have high demand and generally do well on assessments. Those that struggle generally don’t have strong leadership when the charter is launched, don’t have parents that have
made the commitment to make the school successful, don’t provide a unique educational experience and they struggle to fill their classrooms with students so they become financially insolvent.
Pacheco: This issue comes down to answering the question: How do we best utilize the public dollar to provide the best outcomes for students? Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that successful charters are due to their financing, funding, quality of staff and curriculum development, wrap around services, and the availability of before/after school programs. We should focus
on implanting these elements in existing schools, rather than making new schools.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of how charter schools are governed in your state?

Moss: The main advantage to the governance structure of charters is that they are more flexible in how they manage their school. They can make adjustments more quickly and don’t have the challenges of ongoing negotiations with the teachers union. With the right board and parent involvement, this can lead to great results.
Pacheco: We have a strong governance structure in our system that keeps conflicts of interests out of public schools. In charters, you could have a direct business conflict where your goals and interests are split between the student body doing well and your corporation staying in business.

Is the push to expand charter school options justified by research?

Moss: I look at charters as what they were originally intended to be, laboratories of innovation. I expect them to have a broad spectrum of outcomes, depending on the purpose of the charter. For instance, a charter that is focused on a specific area, like refugees, or the arts, or science, could be providing the right experience and learning environment for those students but may not
do as well on the overall subject assessment outcomes.
Pacheco: Certainly there are charters that have excellent outcomes and there are others that have been terrible. It comes down to which charter you are talking about. A lot of school systems have been finding that their budgets are suffering because their statewide pie continues to shrink. The more money given to charters means less for traditional school systems. If we expand charters in Massachusetts, that means the amount of resources for students in traditional public schools shrinks.

What lessons have you learned from charter school implementation in other states that could be applicable for your state?

Moss: We’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of minority students enrolling in charter schools, so we’ve been looking at ways other states have been effective in helping support minority students. I think we have learned having choice for students, whether at charters or online, is a good thing. Not every student learns the same way and some kids really need a different option than traditional district schools. I think we’ve learned how important it is to thoroughly vet each charter as it is being launched. We can’t afford to continue taking funding out of district schools unless the charter is led by a strong team and provides a unique and innovative learning experience.
Pacheco: In Massachusetts, there is too much connection to private interests and profit. Charters are now making public schools pay for the curriculum they develop when the taxpayers paid for the charter schools to exist in the first place. We must utilize the precious resources we have to invest in children to make sure they have before and after school programs, tutoring and other educational alternatives in their public schools. The initial charter philosophy was to take models of curriculum that are working in charters and share them with the public school system for broader implementation. Charters should be the laboratories of education not the standard.