Image by Chris Faraone
Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson was smiling. Not the ordinary cheery ear-to-ear look his constituents have come to expect from the ebullient official, but rather a modest show of relief dashed with giddiness because the side of Boston’s education battle he has come to represent—namely, public school instructors, parents, and students—was getting an official forum to air grievances on-record at his “Hearing to Review the Number of Students Returning to BPS from Charter Schools.”
On this mid-December Wednesday at the height of the holiday season, the council chamber—not even close to packed with roughly 40 heads in attendance, many anxiously retracing notes waiting to testify—was much less hectic than the shopping thoroughfares on either side of Government Center. Fewer than half the councilors showed. Nonetheless, Jackson, there to oversee things as the sponsor of said hearing order, treated the proceeding as a watershed event come at long last.
“We need to hit the pause button and focus on the schools we have,” said Jackson, who has seen public academies in his Roxbury neighborhood neglected while the charter apparatus gains momentum. (In the prickly case of the Dearborn School, charter operators gained control of a new state-of-the-art $70+ million facility which families, faculty, and members of the local community had rallied to secure.) Reminding onlookers at City Hall and those watching from home that Massachusetts schools are among the best in the country, Jackson added, “Sometimes we forget what we have,” and so “it’s critical and timely that we have this conversation.”
CHARLIE PIERCE’S WAR
Rhetorical shots are fired daily in the war over schools in Mass—when business people without education backgrounds are given top administrative posts, upon longstanding traditional schools having their budgets axed as glistening new charters surface nearby. In 2015, for example, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh—an avid supporter of charters and a founding board member of the Neighborhood House Public Charter School in Dorchester—oversaw the hiring of Superintendent Tommy Chang, a veteran charter apostle who aims to run BPS like a startup business, over candidates who were vocally more interested in salvaging regular schools than in fertilizing more alternatives.
The latest theater in the Bay State ed scrum, however, erupted not in direct response to actions taken by Walsh or the city, but rather following attention springing from a November blog post by Esquire.com writer Charles Pierce titled “Boston’s Mayor Goes Full Scott Walker on Charter Schools.” Though only a few paragraphs long, due to exposure through the national magazine’s website (for which this reporter has covered the charter situation in Boston in the past), the mention brought a quiet backroom storm to a public head, as Pierce opined that “charterism is privatization on the public’s dime, the worst of all possible worlds,” and specifically condemned Walsh’s alleged plan “to close 36 public schools in order to make way for charters—and, it seems, for the city’s parochial schools.”
This news didn’t float out of thin air. Education blogger Diane Ravitch produced the same revelation earlier that day, while a parent with the anti-charter group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) reported, “Walsh revealed plans to shrink the number of [BPS] buildings to 90”—for a resulting total of three dozen closures—at a private meeting with QUEST in September. To further obfuscate matters, upcoming building changes will be impacted by the Boston Compact, a 2011 agreement between then-Mayor Tom Menino, the BPS superintendent at the time, and more than 15 parochial and charter school leaders from around the city. Partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the compact initiative, which aims to “bring district, charter and Catholic school educators together,” was resuscitated and revamped in 2015.
With news of potential shutterings reaching national outlets, spokespeople at City Hall swiftly denied Pierce’s claims. With that, the issue of the reinvigorated compact, which even boggled some who were familiar with the 2011 version of the agreement, proved too confusing for reporters, many of whom ran City Hall’s rebuttal as fact. “The Mayor has never said, nor does he have a plan to close 36 schools,” a Walsh spokesperson wrote in a statement, addressing the alleged number rather than objectives of the Boston Compact. The press release continued: “Mayor Walsh has proven his dedication to Boston Public Schools by, in the past year alone, providing unprecedented budgetary support, extending learning time for students, adding 200 pre-kindergarten seats to the district, and hiring a first-class Superintendent.”
Councilor Jackson wasn’t alone in questioning the charter system at his mid-December hearing. One BPS student testified about the sorry state of institutions she’s attended, specifically lamenting the inadequate library facilities at the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester. “I feel like we lack the fundamental resources needed to push students forward,” she told councilors. “How are we preparing high school students for college?”
Then came a Boston Latin Academy senior, Savina Tapia, who serves on the Boston School Committee as the sole student representative. Tapia testified that she formerly attended a charter, but left because “it was like a prison,” with young people having to be escorted to rest rooms by supervising adults and with students often being punished for uniform violations. In her case, Tapia said she once had a sweater confiscated for being the wrong color, despite the cold weather outside.
Tapia was backed up by another male student who says he was pushed out of Boston Green Academy in Brighton, where he reported seeing “students have mental breakdowns, social anxiety [and] depression.” “If a student can’t keep up with the [Green Academy] curriculum,” he said, “then he must be shamed.” Piling on anecdotal damnation, a parent from a public school contracting with the UP Education Network said her 5-year-old son was suspended more than 10 times since September, while Carlos Rojas-Alvarez, who has organized campaigns with youth groups like the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), blasted “atrocious disciplinary policies that hurt young people.” More than anything else, said Rojas-Alvarez, the “poverty-is-no-excuse mentality” that’s prevalent in charters helps “maintain the status quo.”
Outrageous as these individual reports from the bellies of charter schools sound, statewide statistics on school punishment are comparably appalling. As an attorney from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice testified—echoing a report by his organization titled “Not Measuring Up: The State of School Discipline in Massachusetts”—while charters only enroll 3 percent of the students in Mass, they account for a disproportionate 6 percent of all disciplinary removals. According to the committee’s study:
Charter schools in the city of Boston had an average discipline rate of 17.3%, and rates well over 20% were not uncommon. Roxbury Preparatory Charter suspended 59.8% of its students out-of-school at least once, for example. By comparison, Boston Public Schools had an average discipline rate of only 6.6% and its non-charter middle and high schools, including disciplinary alternative schools, had a discipline rate of 11.1%. This indicates that for a similar student body, Boston-area charter schools were much more likely to use exclusionary discipline, particularly in response to minor student behavior violations.
It was a bright November Massachusetts morning, scattered beams of sunshine poking through the foliage on Boston Common. The scene wasn’t typical for a political lobbying day, but instead resembled the setup for a major concert or charity event with a large portable stage, booming sound, camera crews with heavy equipment, and a wall of movie lights illuminating the already-sunny backdrop. From Beacon Street above, passersby could see massive printed placards screaming, “GREAT SCHOOLS NOW.”
Next to the stage, the production crew tapped by the event’s lead sponsor, a group called Great Schools Massachusetts, manufactured outrage for a dramatic rally recap video. Parroting a woman standing with two cameramen who was giving directions, a female high school student said the company line—“37,00 kids are waiting to get into public charter schools”—repeatedly until the sales pitch sounded unrehearsed. On stage, Great Schools operatives and parents worked the crowd, with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker showing up on a giant screen at one point to advocate for additional charters and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito appearing in person.
Other than the tens of thousands of dollars spent on sound, film, optics, transportation, signs, and T-shirts, the spectacle almost looked like a grassroots effort. Except that it wasn’t. In reality, the Great Schools coalition is tied to a group called Families for Excellent Schools, which is an investment property of the Bay Area-based NewSchools Venture Fund. Supported by the likes of Exxon Mobil and the Walton Family Foundation—and boasting a board populated by venture capitalists—NewSchools has a mission to “transform public education through powerful ideas and passionate entrepreneurs so that all children—especially those in underserved communities—have the opportunity to succeed.” In practice, they have angled for additional funds to transfer from public schools to charter ops they favor.
There should have been little concern among those rallying on Boston Common that their cries would be heard under the Golden Dome. In addition to support from the highest elected official in the state, as one of his first moves in office, Governor Baker appointed James Peyser, a former executive director with the conservative Pioneer Institute and managing partner at NewSchools, as the state’s secretary of education. A devout adversary of organized teachers, Peyser has opined at length about the need to upend the Commonwealth education bureaucracy, even as he acknowledges that “Massachusetts is seen, rightly so, as one of the highest, if not the highest performing state in terms of public education outcomes,” and claims, “If [Massachusetts] were a country, it would be one of the highest-performing countries in the world.”
If any of this seems odd, that’s because the education fight in Mass is hard to comprehend, if not impossible to understand for the casual observer—whether they have kids in public schools or not. Any festering confusion was compounded in September, when a lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court—arguing that limiting the number of charter schools deprives children of a quality education—named as defendants Baker and Peyser, who strongly support lifting the state cap to allow more nontraditional schools. Attorney General Maura Healey vowed to fight the suit aggressively; still, the whole ordeal fueled further speculation about the pro-charter subterfuge afoot.
WHOSE SIDE ARE THEY ON?
Several months ago, activists and worker groups in Boston started inquiring about accountability for this mess. In August, the research arm of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, a labor federation, sent formal requests to 10 charter schools to see if they provided parent contact lists to lobbying groups—“potentially without the consent of the parents”—in order to deliver crowds like that which turned out for the Great Schools gathering on Boston Common. After three months of waiting, Jobs With Justice reported that only one charter “produced responsive records at no fee,” while two failed to respond at all, and the other seven, most of which use the same law firm, responded “with fee estimates averaging over $13,000 to produce the records.”
Meanwhile, on the City Hall front, the Boston Compact is a private organization, making it difficult for parents and attorneys with QUEST to obtain records related to what the mayor’s office concedes are “ongoing policy discussions.” All this as BPS sets to unveil a new school facilities master plan in 2016. These roadblocks considered, one can only wonder if the Hub’s clandestine calculations will account for the more than $120 million that charters drain from struggling public schools each year. At Jackson’s City Council hearing, BPS officials weren’t even able to produce migration totals—of the number of underperforming students pushed from charters back into public schools—from after the 2011-2012 school year.
Whatever the case, BPS teachers and parents aren’t likely to surrender soon. On Jan 14, the labor-backed Boston Education Justice Alliance will host an “emergency town hall” to address topics including the Boston Compact, school closures, the charter school ballot initiative, and transparency. They’re meeting in Roxbury at Madison Park High School, which was recently declared “underperforming” by state officials. As per the precedent set with the Dearborn and other neglected institutions, it won’t be long before the struggling vocational high school is deemed a failure and placed under the control of charter sector operators without any public input whatsoever.