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Parent organizers preparing for charter school battle

New York-based education group ups the stakes

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Parent organizers preparing for charter school battle
A crowd organizers estimated at 2,000 turned out to Families for Excellent Schools’ inaugural rally in Boston last November at Faneuil Hall. The pro-charter school group opened its Boston office last year, following the defeat of a push to lift the funding cap on charter schools.

After incoming school Superintendent Tommy Chang announced the appointment of his new chief of staff, Makeeba McCreary, a consultant who previously worked for a pro-charter schools organization, local education activists launched a petition calling for her ouster.

That petition, titled Keep Corporate Education Reformers out of Boston Public Schools, which as of Monday had garnered 277 signatures, underscores deep distrust of Families for Excellent Schools the firm that hired McCreary as a contract worker. The New York-based organization has locked horns with Mayor Bill DiBlasio over charter school funding, reportedly spending $3.6 million on an advertising campaign, and last year turned out an estimated 13,000 demonstrators to the state capital in Albany to support lifting New York’s state cap on charter school expansion.

FES, which also has a chapter in Connecticut, opened its Massachusetts office last year in the wake of a failed bid by charter school supporters to lift the Massachusetts cap on new charters. While FES staff and volunteers repeatedly have maintained that the group is not organizing exclusively in support of charter schools, their ongoing petition, which calls on legislators to “Give every child access to an excellent public school in his or her neighborhood — whether it’s a district or a charter school,” is widely seen as the opening salvo in a coming fight to lift the charter school cap. If the more than 10,000 signatures the group claims to have garnered so far is any indication, FES is ready to do battle.

Competition for funding

At the heart of the fight is a competition over public funding. Charters receive their funding from the school districts in which they operate, drawing upon the average per-pupil allocation calculated for a given fiscal year.

Under the current state law, charters can claim no more than 18 percent of a district’s funding, limiting the number of charters that can operate in any given district.

Although the state is required to partially reimburse school districts for the funding they lose to charters, the state has not consistently fully funded the reimbursements, compounding the loss of funding districts face due to rising costs of health insurance and compensation.

With costs escalating in districts throughout the Commonwealth and Chapter 70 school funding declining over the last 20 years, fights over money are inevitable.

“There’s clearly an ongoing challenge as we go through year after year of budget cuts,” says Angelina Camacho, a member of the Citywide Parents Council and an opponent of lifting the charter school cap.

“The district schools are losing state Chapter 70 funding and the charters are recruiting higher-performing kids,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “Larger cities get hit really hard.”

Parents interviewed by the Banner said the schools their children attend have been losing funding for music, art, after-school programming and sports. On a larger scale, the Boston Public Schools has phased out busing for 7th and 8th graders and closed several schools in the last two years.

On a smaller level, Camacho sees a growing list of supplies her son’s school requests from parents.

“The classroom supply list gets bigger every year,” she said. “Glue sticks, hand sanitizer. Now they’re asking us for reams of paper.”

Resurgence of organizing

The pervasive budget cuts in Boston’s schools were a major factor in the resurgence of parent organizing that culminated last year in an unprecedented turnout of district school supporters who lobbied successfully at the State House against lifting the cap on new charter schools.

The charter cap-lifting push was defeated in April 2014. Last August, Families for Excellent Schools began organizing. In a November weekday rally at Faneuil Hall, the group drew what organizers said was more than 2,000 parents and students. While speakers did not advocate specifically for charter schools, they did reference FES’s claim that 77,000 children in Massachusetts attend “persistently failing schools.”

In the wake of defeated attempts to lift the funding cap, local charter school backers said they would consider a ballot referendum on abolishing it. FES officials have not said what they plan to do. Their signature-collecting campaign, called Unify Boston, does not mention charters at all.

Jeremiah Kittredge, Executive Director of Families for Excellent Schools, was not available for comment, but sent a statement via email.

“Unify Boston is about charter and district parents coming together in a positive way. It’s time to work together and focus on what families need: access to a great school in their neighborhood. Now that over 10,000 people have signed onto the campaign, we’re going to work with our elected leaders to find solutions that increase the number of great schools across the city,” the statement read.

Ana Cecilia Torres, who attended the FES rally in November and helped collect signatures for their Unify Boston campaign, says she supports both charter schools and district schools.

“I’m excited to become part of this group because they want to bring change to the schools,” she said. “Not only charter schools, but also district schools. I want to make sure all schools are quality schools.”

Asked whether she would support lifting the cap on charter schools, Torres re-iterated that she is working to improve all schools.

“I just want to make sure every parent has access to an excellent school,” she said.

Not-so-level playing field

With four staff members in its Massachusetts office and a board thick with hedge fund managers who have helped the organization tap funders such as the Walton Foundation, the Vanguard Chartable Endowment Program and other corporate donors, FES seems well-poised to lobby Massachusetts legislators.

Groups advocating for funding for district schools in Boston — the Citywide Parents Council and Quality Education for Every Student — have no paid staff.

But Mary Battenfeld, a QUEST member who helped revive the Parents Council last year after 30 years of inactivity, said the group’s ranks are growing.

“There were five of us in a meeting last year,” she said. “There were 85 of us in a recent meeting.”

The group rallied earlier this year against five proposed school closings, halting the district’s plans to shutter three.

“We’re organizing because people came together around issues, as opposed to a group coming in and showing you a Power Point presentation about why Boston has terrible public schools, with the clear implication that we need more charters,” Battenfeld said.

Zero-sum game

When charter schools were introduced in Massachusetts in 1993, they were sold as a way to introduce healthy competition to school districts, bringing in innovative approaches to education that would inform the way district schools operate.

Whether or not that’s happened, district school supporters say charters operate with unfair advantages. They graduate fewer special education students and fewer English language learners. And while many boast high college acceptance rates, many also graduate far fewer students than they admit.

Blogger John Lerner points to Boston Preparatory Charter School, which he says lost 75 percent of its students between 6th grade and 12th grade, while its test scores steadily improved.

Lerner says that pattern plays itself out at many charters.

“I wouldn’t mind that they do that, but they’re taking away money from the district schools,” he said.

Citywide Parent Council member Angie Camacho argues that the charters’ ability to effectively cherry-pick students undermines competition with the district schools.

“I agree that, in essence, healthy competition creates success,” she said. “What I don’t agree with is charter schools ability to select or manage-out students who performance affects their numbers. They should have the same responsibility that BPS has to educate every student.”

Camacho argues that Boston, a city with world-class universities and a booming economy, should spend more on educating its students.

“We all want the same thing,” she said. “We shouldn’t be cutting each other off to get at it.”

But with declining state aid, a limited political will to raise taxes and a funding mechanism that requires charters to grow at the expense of district schools, the debate on charter school expansion may well be settled at the ballot box.