Editorial by Henry M. Thomas, III – Supporting Charter Schools in Massachusetts

Mr. Thomas is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield and member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Massachusetts.  Mr. Thomas is also a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

Editorial by Henry M. Thomas, III – Supporting Charter Schools in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is one of the most affluent states in the nation. Our public school system is among the best. Yet when it comes to our urban areas, we are falling short of ensuring every child in the Commonwealth has fair access to a quality public education.

Into this opportunity, void steps our state’s public charter schools, which are at the heart of ballot Question 2 this fall. Charter Schools are among the most important tools we have to lift up low-income children of color. Where traditional district schools across the country enroll about 16% black students, our children account for more than 1-in-4 students at charter schools.

According to Stanford University, black students learn more when they attend charter schools – gaining the equivalent of 14 extra days of learning in reading and math every year compared with black students in traditional district schools. Here in Massachusetts, public charters are the best in the country, giving students longer school days, more personal attention, and hundreds of additional hours in the classroom each year.

And consider: in a state that is more than 70% white with over 400 school districts, nearly 9-in-10 low-income children of color live in just 17 communities in Massachusetts – cities like Boston, Lawrence and my hometown, Springfield where over 80% of the public school children are black or Hispanic and 90% are low income. Fewer than half of the students in these 17 communities can read or do math at grade level. High school graduation rates in these places trail state averages by 16 points.

There is a word for disparities like these: “segregation.” And what contributes significantly to keeping our public schools segregated is the cap on public charter schools preventing more children from accessing high-quality public schools.

Indeed, in the communities with the longest waiting lists, public charter students are more than 20 points better at reading and math than school conventional district students. They’re virtually identical to statewide averages, despite serving a far higher-need student population than the average Massachusetts community.

Given the overwhelming and powerful evidence on the effectiveness of Massachusetts public charter schools with low-income students of color, leaders in all of our urban inner city communities should be lining up to end a policy that perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequity, holds back our communities and harms our national reputation as a progressive standard-bearer in education.

But that isn’t always the case. Take the NAACP, of which I’ve long been supporter and member. In fact, my father was the youth director, treasurer, and vice president for the Springfield branch for many years. The NAACP and the Urban League of Springfield have been valuable partners in uplifting the African American community on a host of issues – from human rights to economic freedom. But when it comes to public charters, they’ve called for a moratorium.

I respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the NAACP’s decision.  The facts on public charters and how they are funded are clear. State per pupil funding travels with the students to wherever they attend school. 

And as the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation just found, there is zero evidence that school districts “are suffering a loss of support, or that the per-student funding of districts is trending negatively” because of charter schools.

In part, that is because the state offsets the loss of tuition when a student attends public charter schools, “by providing reimbursements set to a percentage of the funding they would have received for a departing student. In return, charter schools allow for a small percentage of high needs parents to access schools that have a proven track record for effectively educating all students, notwithstanding ethnicity, zip codes, social, economic status, and other mobility barriers.

Charter schools give parents who want a high-quality education and can’t afford to pay for it, a choice. Why would we want to limit that choice? I wonder if we put ourselves in the shoes of parents whose children are stuck in under-performing schools, and don’t have the resources or ability to choose another option, what would we do?

We cannot tell thousands of black and brown children they can’t access the same educational opportunities as their white peers. Lifting the cap on public charter schools is a smart strategy to increase access to a world-class education for all of our children. 

We cannot stand by as yet another generation of black and brown children in our cities grow up without the hope or opportunity that a high-quality public education provides.  By voting Yes on Question 2, we have a chance to act in the best interest of all of our children.

For communities of color in the Commonwealth, this is our moment. Let us not allow it to pass us by.