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SPECIAL FEATURE: ANATOMY OF THE NEW MASS CHARTER SCHOOL BATTLEGROUND

CHARTER LEAD

Photos by Chris Faraone

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

For a couple of minutes, right around the time their rally is supposed to start, there are fewer than half-a-dozen charter school opponents clamoring outside the State House. The crowd is sparse, but then a backup platoon surfaces atop the steps on Boston Common across Beacon Street. Leading the charge, Karen Kast-McBride, a proudly mouthy education activist and mother of two public school kids from Roslindale, flicks her cigarette into the crosswalk, and marches toward the State House, a small gaggle of parents and children holding protest signs in tow.

Though some aggravated souls may have stayed home to avoid the biting late-March chill, unfriendly weather is the least of Kast-McBride’s problems. Along with her fellow crusaders, she’d have ventured out here in a hurricane, hoisting up her message for the legislative aides to run from as they scatter off to happy hour. Also known as @BPSNightmare on Twitter, she has a litany of messages for Beacon Hill, but today’s is fairly simple: Don’t raise the cap and allow for more charters, as per legislation pending a tense midnight deadline. Doing so, she argues, will allow those institutions to continue draining resources from traditional schools. It’s a common refrain from her camp.

Kast-McBride isn’t alone in her outrage. Less vocal but equally heated is John Lerner, a Roxbury parent who tells me of the funding issues faced by his daughter’s school, Mendell Elementary. In a familiar story, Lerner says anticipated cuts there have the parental community in fear of losing paraprofessionals, paid interns from Northeastern University, half their supply budget, music classes, and athletic programs. With so much on the chopping block, Mendell families have been trying to raise thousands through bake sales.

RALLY PIC 2

I’ve heard these tales before. Of inequity. Of dwindling budgets. Of charter schools that take the best, brightest, and most physically and emotionally able while leaving their less fortunate counterparts to scrap with less. Of decade-old computers in the classroom. Along with renowned education writer Diane Ravitch and a few obscure labor tracts that rarely echo outside union teacher circles, I feel like one of the few reporters anywhere who has unapologetically railed charter expansion. In my opinion, the fanatical efforts by private equity firms and other demonstrably nefarious entities to exert pressure on public schools is nothing short of a recipe for a reaming.

Openly opposing charters is unpopular business. Republicans and Democrats are largely on the same page regarding this issue, while around here, neither side seems awfully concerned that companies like Bain Capital, which boasts several executives on boards of pro-charter nonprofits, is literally in the school business with its commonwealth-based Bright Horizons operation. Even under the progressive new Boston mayor, Marty Walsh, education is increasingly subjected to the mercy of corporate interests. In assembling a search committee for the new BPS superintendent, Walsh tapped Bank of America Massachusetts President Robert Gallery as co-chair. It’s the stuff of Idiocracy and conspiratorial Marxist satire, but it’s a growing reality.

All things considered, the fight against proliferating charter schools is a lonely struggle, pitting those waging it against everyone from Walsh to Governor Deval Patrick. Still, these teachers and activists chug on, hoping someone listens. Outside the State House, anxiously awaiting word on whether the Joint Committee on Education will advance a bill that neither charter school opponents nor advocates find favorable, Kast-McBride riles the crowd, which maxes out at about 60 parents, kids, and teachers: “We are the birthplace of public education,” she says. “We don’t want to be the death place of it too … We want accountability before they raise the charter cap.”

MONDAY, MARCH 24

It’s hard to remember the last time a political press conference was jam-packed with this much naive hope. Probably around the time Barack Obama was first elected president, soon after which the new liberal administration seemingly abandoned all the policies of George W. Bush except for those on education. More than two decades into bipartisan experimental charter implementation hatched over the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, affected parties have been pushed into two corners of a boxing ring. Here in Massachusetts, presiding over this last-minute Beacon Hill media availability, it’s clear state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is the referee du jour.

Over the weekend, Chang-Diaz announced a compromise that she and other ed committee members hoped would somewhat satisfy all parties, from those who want the charter cap lifted, to those who want to fill it with cement. Things didn’t work as she had wished–both sides reacted swiftly and indignantly through mainstream and social media–and this press availability is meant to smooth things over. Boston state Rep. Russell E. Holmes, the lead sponsor on the controversial bill to lift the cap, sets the tone by asking all parties to “get in the same boat and get rowing.” Non-political leaders also call for unity, while legislators express frustration over the polarization charging these sensitive issues.

3-24 C-D PRESSER

Ostensibly representing what little middle ground there is between these rival factions, Boston state Sen. Linda Dorcena-Forry speaks about the need to reimburse public schools for funds siphoned off by charters. Mariama White-Hammond, executive director of the Roxbury-based Project HIP-HOP, pleads for agreement: “The reality is I know children in charter schools and public schools all throughout the state, and we shouldn’t be pitting them against one another.” The speakers all contend that few voices have emerged from the center of the cap debate.

Chang-Diaz looks exhausted, if not wholly frustrated. She claims there are “many important reforms” in the proposed bill, and says she is “still hopeful down to the last minute that we’ll be able to reach a compromise.” “A third way is possible,” she says. To make matters even more tense, a rush of hollering from down the hall causes the senator to pause for a moment. The approaching crowd isn’t here to confront her, but you can almost sense Chang-Diaz imagining such a perturbed group of citizens–or possibly even two angry mobs–sharpening their pitchforks as her colleagues look for common ground. There’s still more than a day before the ed committee’s deadline, so there’s a strong chance of imminent protest.

The State House is just one theater in the growing battle. While Chang-Diaz answers variations of the same inquiries asked of her repeatedly for days, nearby, members of the demonstrably pro-charter Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education push forward with their own agenda, almost as if unconcerned about the plight of the Holmes bill. According to a public statement, in its morning summit, the MBAE–which touts board members from companies including Bank of America–shares “findings of a statewide poll of employers,” and releases “a report about the condition of public education in Massachusetts.” Their stated goal: to use those “recommendations for discussion as [they] continue to refine this blueprint for future education policy in the Commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, on the placard-making front, teachers and parents who oppose charter expansion are enjoying a relatively good day in the press. After torrents of pro-charter op-eds and subjective reporting in the Boston Globe, the paper’s education writer, James Vaznis, finally threw a bone in the other direction today, acknowledging the campaign in which Kast-McBride is involved may be “the largest and most aggressive parent-driven effort in the state to stop raising the charter-school cap.” Furthermore, Vaznis acknowledged their work “follows a similar effort by teachers unions, which have launched letter-writing campaigns to persuade legislators to oppose the measure.”

Despite suddenly winning some attention from bigger outlets, however little and however late–in addition to the Globe, Jon Keller worked both sides into a WBZ segment titled “Charter School Debate Becomes Toxic”–anti-expansion forces, much like their adversaries, stand unmoved. Kast-McBride is still pissed enough to trek across the city to Brighton, where Mayor Walsh is hosting an evening town hall. According to a Boston.com dispatch:

The 90-minute question-and answer-session [starts] with a bang, when education advocate Karen Kast-McBride [steps] to the microphone … armed with a petition she [says is] signed by 2,500 people against a bill that would lift a state-imposed cap on charter school enrollment. Kast-McBride [tells] Walsh that last year, during the race for mayor, he had said he was against lifting the cap on charter schools until all the inequalities in the Boston Public Schools had been addressed.

I’m asking you now whether you are going to keep to that,” Kast-McBride [says].

I’ll be very clear in my position,” Walsh [says]. “I am a pro-charter school person.”

Back on social media–ground zero, home base, and the rhetorical backbone of this battle–Kast-McBride and her allies return to business, organizing for a Tuesday after-work rally. They also share links to the day’s somewhat positive coverage, all the while reminding followers that their concerns remain. They’re done playing nice. If the morning began with Chang-Diaz wondering if and when dissenting parties would show up on her doorstep, by the end of the day, it’s clear that at least one impassioned faction is en route …

CHARTER TWEET 2

SUNDAY, MARCH 23

Word is moving through the internet that Globe reporter Vaznis called a bunch of people in the anti-charter movement. They expected some kind of story today–a big Sunday splash to help turn their luck–but nothing came. As such, conspiracy theories run rampant, as does doubt that news of a petition being circulated by a group called QUEST calling for “Adequate Funding for Public Education and Maintaining the Charter Cap” will reach the masses soon enough to make an impact. They have in excess of 2,200 signatures so far, but their message doesn’t appear to have reached the larger news-consuming public. The frustration boils over on the local school insider blog Parent Imperfect, where the father of two BPS students explains

 At the base of this so-called “third way” is the perception that we need, at all costs, a “safety valve” for families who believe that the Boston Public Schools are not educating their children well. According to this argument, more charters will offer more such families such a choice …

I know families in this situation. You probably do, too. They truly believe that a charter school has saved their child (or children), and some of those families definitely want more charters to open. I also know that charters have proven to be a very unreliable safety valve for many of those same families …

Proportionally, charters educate way fewer English Language learners and students with special needs than the public schools, who must take everyone. Fully half of the students who turn to these schools as an alternative can’t adjust to the charter environment and end up back in traditional public schools (or out of school, entirely) …

At a meeting with BPS parents last week, Sen. Chang-Díaz acknowledged these concerns and promised language in her compromise that would demand charter accountability around just these issues. Her statement mentions no such language in the final bill. I hope the language just slipped the minds of those spinning the compromise.

I’m all too familiar with this endless back-and-forth, and with the bullshit parade that charter advocates are marching clear across the commonwealth. Case in point: While the ordeal plays out over the weekend, with opinions flying from the State House to Springfield, a letter appears in my Dig inbox. It reads, in part …

Unfortunately, by and large the charter school movement has not done a great job of asserting its progressive origins and agenda. Toxic debates about school vouchers, school choice, and teacher evaluation systems have obscured the issue. It’s time to set the record straight.

I’ll admit that I’m “biased” – I had the privilege to work for six and half years at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, one of the highest performing middle schools in the Commonwealth, as a teacher and a school leader. During that time, I witnessed the truly transformational power of how dedicated teachers can change children’s lives. I’ve seen middle school students recite Shakesepeare, solve Algebra problems, and excel on the MCAS year after year, while also mastering Tae Kwan Doe and putting on elaborate musical productions. Most powerfully, I’ve seen many of these same students return to Roxbury Prep as college students and graduates with a passion for social justice.

Progressives need to get on the right side of the charter school debate in Massachusetts. It is understandable to have serious misgivings about charter schools on the national level. Let’s take Florida for example. In Florida, there are a slew of fly-by-night charter schools. Many of these schools are not only ineffective, but actually take money from taxpayers and redistribute it to corporations. It’s a Wild West mentality that is not good for students, families, or teachers. However, the simple fact is that Massachusetts has better charter schools than any other state.

Not sure where to turn, and with an unusual amount of news breaking for a weekend, I feel the need to respond right away, and so I eviscerate his carcass on my Facebook page for all to see …

Here’s a letter I just returned to someone who sent me an opinion they want printed in my paper. It was about how progressives should back charters, and almost made me choke on my breakfast. This fight is about to heat up in the next few days here in Mass, and that’s fine, but let’s get one thing clear–THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING PROGRESSIVE ABOUT SUPPORTING THE PRIVATIZATION OF SCHOOLS, OR IDEAS BACKED BY BANKS AND VENTURE CAPITALISTS. Like I tell this asshole, his side is most likely going to win this fight and finish destroying public education, but they shouldn’t get to call themselves progressive while they do it …

Your letter is an insult of the highest order. To children in poor communities. To public school teachers. To history. To the system. To Horace Mann. You name it. You know absolutely nothing of progressive values, and your reluctance to reference actual numbers and statistics–compounded by your reliance on anecdotal personal charter experiences– demonstrates your utter dismissal of the truth in favor of your intellectually narcissistic agenda.

Furthermore, you’re full of shit. If you actually read DigBoston you would know that we consider charter boosters like you to be lower than the staunchest conservatives (most of whom, as it turns out, share your view on education, along with every neo-liberal ass from Washington to Boston City Hall). You are gleefully paving the road to privatization, whether you acknowledge it or not. You’re going to win this fight–the way things are looking, Massachusetts is going to keep heading in this dangerous direction–but please do everyone a favor and keep your letter. Not only will I not run it, but I’ll be stepping all over you in an upcoming op-ed.

Disrespectfully,

Chris Faraone, News + Features Editor, DigBoston

SATURDAY, MARCH 22

After much hand-wringing and bad-mouthing, Senator Chang-Diaz drops the press release that the entire Massachusetts pedagogical planet has been salivating for. Though the Saturday afternoon news is unlikely to make anyone happy, the tone is nevertheless positive …

Today Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, and Representative Russell Holmes, House sponsor of the bill to lift the state’s cap on charter schools, reached an agreement on how to achieve a cap lift and allow legislation on turnaround schools and charter schools to move forward …

The compromise comes three days before the Education Committee’s Tuesday deadline for releasing a final bill for consideration by the rest of the legislature. The agreement comes after a tense two weeks, during which progress on an ambitious education reform bill seemed to stall over long-standing controversies about district and charter school financing. A compromise endorsed by both the sponsor of the original cap-lift legislation and the Senate chair of the Education Committee represents an eleventh hour life-line for both the cap lift itself and other reforms the committee has been working on …

I’m proud and thrilled to announce a breakthrough, which increases opportunities for kids in charter and district schools alike,” said Chang-Díaz. “The children and families seeking a great education in our state need this and deserve it. I’m also relieved for what this breakthrough can mean for the other reforms the committee has been working on; there are so many important tools that I want to see make it through the rest of the legislative process. I hope the agreement reached today will break the logjam and allow the bill to move forward.”

3-22 C-D PRESS RELEASE

The Globe, it seems, is unhappy with the news. And so Vaznis gives the floor to the bigwigs who want the charter cap removed once and for all …

The Race to the Top Coalition, a group of business, education, and civic leaders, said the proposal would enable the Legislature each year to to halt charter school expansion simply by underfunding the reimbursements to local districts … “What little we know of the current compromise would allow lawmakers to stop the expansion of charters to plan a responsible course of multiyear growth by simply voting to underfund the reimbursement by a single dollar,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Foundation, on behalf of the coalition.

Across the ideological aisle, Diane Ravitch weighs in with an overview and update on the situation in the commonwealth. Like a pied piper of public school teachers, the leading anti-charter voice writes of the group heading the local charge: “Boston’s Citizens for Public Schools show how a powerful group of parents, teachers, and concerned citizens can inform the public and keep the heat on legislators.” Confident in her troops on the ground, Ravitch links to reliable curmudgeon EduShyster, and quotes CPS Executive Director Lisa Guisbond at length, noting …

The good: Some groups kept their decorum and stuck to the issues, including the Black Educators Alliance Massachusetts (BEAM), which wrote this letter on lifting the charter cap. It says, in part, “The state should not lift the cap on charter schools without addressing the funding inequities imposed on districts such as Boston and the disproportionately lower number of English language learners and students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools.”

The bad: Meanwhile, tempers flared at the Pioneer Institute, which launched this public attack on Secretary of Education Matt Malone, saying his views on charters are “characterized by bigotry and demonization.”

The ugly: Don’t forget that the State Auditor’s Office is close to completing a comprehensive audit of charter school finances and practices. We remain convinced that it would make sense for legislators to read that report before considering changing the charter school cap.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

It’s been a nasty week in the school business, and things are only getting nastier. That goes triple for the parents and teachers who oppose charter expansion, the lot of which has been ignored by most politicians and maligned in popular media. In its role as the almighty purveyor of the growing battleground, for example, the Globe has typically slobbered over charters. A recent op-ed, “Education reform has worked for Mass.; it’s time for the next round,” proved their allegiance, showing how selective Globies are with facts and objectivity when it comes time to hammer home its ed agenda.

BRAUDE

In another smear, just yesterday, NECN personality Jim Braude perfectly characterized the cocksure ignorance of so many charter cheerleaders, asking Chang-Diaz on his cable interview show how legislators who prevent expansion could face parents with kids on charter waiting lists. It’s an easy position–a convenient way to look compassionate–yet if any logic were to enter the equation, one would obviously have to ask in response what somebody like Braude would say to the parents of traditional public school children–still the majority of the BPS population–whose schools are seeing less money each year.

Chang-Diaz, whose positions don’t seem to please anyone, handled Braude well at the beginning of her Thursday interview, but started to unravel toward the end. This debate’s already reached the point where noting anything true yet negative about charters–falsified graduation rates, affiliations with the foulest corporate vultures imaginable, you name it–gets you branded as a baby-hater. Or worse! For her efforts to find compromise, the Boston Herald went so far as to unleash a vintage cliché in haranguing Chang-Diaz, claiming there should be “a special place in hell reserved for those who would deprive children of a way out of a failing school.” As for the testing companies, privatization operatives, and predatory text book manufacturers lusting over Bay State tax dollars, we can only assume they’re welcome through the gates of Herald heaven.

Media minefield aside, Chang-Diaz and her fellow lawmakers are coming down to the wire, and have everyone from local educators to parents anxiously awaiting their announcement. No one’s really sure what the details will look like. Everybody knows what they would prefer. An ideological ocean in front of them, ed committee members climb inside a life raft, hoping they can somehow convince others to join them.

EPILOGUE

To the surprise of few and the delight of many, the education committee ultimately failed to advance the ballyhooed kumbaya bill before the deadline. Chang-Diaz lamented in a statement:

I am truly disappointed that the good work done by many education stakeholders, including my Co-Chair Rep. Peisch, over the past several months did not move out of the Joint Committee on Education today. All our children—district and charter—deserve action on the provisions we’ve been working on. The bill would have included reforms that would have put Massachusetts on the forefront of innovation in education policy.

I’m sad that obstinacy and polarized rhetoric stood in the way of compromise and progress. I was genuinely encouraged that we’d reached a breakthrough a few days ago when the cap-lift’s chief sponsor, Rep. Holmes, and I agreed on a solution that increased opportunities for kids in both charter and district schools. That compromise even received the backing of grassroots community leaders who sit in neither camp. The fact that too many parties could not get out of their corners to find a practical middle reminds me of the dysfunction in Washington DC right now. Unfortunately it’s children in all public school systems, district and charter alike, who are suffering for it.

CHARTER TWEET 1

Around the commonwealth, education advocates of different stripes cheered and sneered for various reasons, while corporate voices and media clowns trumpeted the Globe‘s arguments–some right in the paper itself–as if their undying affection for charters was some novel sentiment. Despite the persecution complex worn by those who want the cap obliterated, they enjoyed a temporary win last Wednesday when, less than a day after the ed committee failed to yield results, charter-friendly House members adopted a bill that would screw regular public schools far worse than anything previously considered. According to the State House News Service, the legislation would allow for “more charter schools without addressing increases in reimbursements to traditional public schools.”

Needless to say, there was no discussion about what lawmakers will tell regular public school parents if the bill passes, and their children increasingly lose programs, teachers, and basic supplies. And to think that things seemed bad a week ago.

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