Boston’s No-lemons Charter Schools

  • Education
  • 2013

By 2013, the charter schools in many U.S. cities were beginning to pile up remarkable achievement records, but the accomplishments of Boston’s philanthropically supported charters were in a category by themselves. First, it’s important to note that Boston charters enroll students who are almost indistinguishable from the students who attend conventional public schools in the city. In the latest school year, 84 percent of Boston’s charter-school students were black or Hispanic, compared to 76 in the conventional system; in both systems, seven out of ten students came from low-income families. Yet three top-tier studies released in 2013 demonstrated that the children in charters were getting much better educations.

A Stanford study found, stunningly, that charter students in Boston were learning at twice the rate of their peers in conventional schools—gaining, for every school year completed, an additional 13 months of progress in math, and an additional 12 months in reading. Charter schools were especially effective, the researchers showed, at pushing students above the “proficient” level and into the “advanced” ranking on the tough end-of-year exams administered by the state of Massachusetts.

A different study released that same year by an MIT economist and four fellow professors was a careful comparison of high-school students from charters to demographically matched counterparts in conventional schools. It found that the charter students were twice as likely to take A.P. classes (and scored higher on final exams), that they did much better in statewide tests (“with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship”), that they ended up with composite SAT scores more than 100 points higher than non-charter kids, and that they were much likelier to attend a four-year college instead of a two-year college.

The final burst of high-quality charter-school research to ripple through the city in 2013 was an investigation funded by the Boston Foundation. It tracked very closely with the two results above, and added the detail that charter schools’ “largest gains appear to be for students of color, and particularly large gains were found for English Language Learners.”

But perhaps the most remarkable finding that year concerning Boston’s charter schools was that not one of them was sub-standard. Fully 83 percent of Boston charters performed “significantly better” than neighboring schools, and the remaining 17 percent produced equivalent results. Zero percent performed below the norm.

Despite these stellar outcomes, Boston and the rest of Massachusetts are burdened with a cap on the number of charter schools permitted to exist. Even in districts where conventional schools are worst, a regulation imposed by charter opponents limits the proportion of students attending charters to a maximum of 18 percent of all public-school enrollees. In 2013 that blocked spectacularly successful inner-city institutions like the Edward Brooke Charter Schools, and others, from accommodating additional students languishing on lengthy waiting lists. The Massachusetts House voted in 2014 to raise the cap slightly, but opponents organized by the state teacher union knocked the measure down in the state Senate.