"It's this whole notion of pushing low achievers back into the public system, and guiding what they perceive to be high achievers into other types of schools," says Kathy Skinner, policy and practice director for the Center for Education, who authored the controversial MTA report. "When thinking about this, people should ask themselves if charter schools should be able to create a discriminatory two-tier education system — and if public dollars should be used to support that."
In other words: Hub charters have benefited many children, but possibly at the expense of the overall public-education infrastructure, not to mention the 50 percent of students who leave charter schools before graduating. Whether the net outcome is positive depends on who you ask.
Created through the Commonwealth's 1993 Education Reform Act, a Massachusetts charter school is a public institution that is run by a board of trustees operating independently from local school committees. Theoretically, charters are intended to provide students with "greater options," and "teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative, innovative methods of educational instruction and school structure and management." Teachers, parents, nonprofits, and almost any well-intentioned secular, non-corporate entity can petition to open up a charter school.
By law, the 14 charter operations throughout Boston — as well as the other charters statewide — all select students through a random lottery (preferences are given only to brothers and sisters whose siblings attend a particular school). There are no entrance exams or interviews, and parents can apply to as many charters as they wish. Last year, nearly eight percent (or 4800) of Boston's approximately 60,000 public-school students attended charters.
There is endless debate as to the effectiveness of charter schools, much of which stems from the uniform practice of exclusively enrolling students at certain grade levels (and not replenishing the student body). Boston charter high schools Codman Academy (in Dorchester) and City on a Hill (in Roxbury), for example, only accept students in the ninth-grade year. So, though both boast 100 percent college placement, many claim such figures are deceptive, and that charter schools manipulate data to solicit funding and admiration.
"Boston's Commonwealth charter schools have significantly weak 'promoting power,' " according to the MTA study on out-migration. It continues: "The number of seniors is routinely below 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled four years earlier. Looking at it another way, for every five freshmen enrolled in Boston's charter high schools, there were only two seniors."
That deliberation affects the comparison of traditional- and charter-school students on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests and other academic measures. A January 2009 report by the Boston Foundation (which was commissioned by the pro-charter Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) was loudly touted by choice cheerleaders after finding that "charter schools — at both the middle and high school levels — have a very positive impact on student achievement."
As far as those results are concerned, opponents charge that charters benefit from not having to account for students that they purge. District schools cannot legally enforce the same behavioral and academic sanctions as charters, which suspend students nearly five times more than district schools, and often expel underachievers and lose kids as a result of asking them to stay back. Furthermore, while charter admissions don't discriminate, critics say they are ill-equipped to instruct learning-disabled and foreign-speaking students, who, as a default, mostly wind up at district schools, where they negatively affect test scores, producing low rankings and the sort of reputations that charter-school guidance counselors warn their students about.