There is intense debate in Massachusetts right now around Question 2, a ballot initiative aimed at raising the cap on public charter schools. I am generally of the opinion that legislating through ballot initiatives is a poor idea (with all the normal downsides of direct democracy). This being New England, we experience the flaws of direct democracy perennially at our horrible “town meetings,” which is apparently not enough to discourage proponents of ballot initiatives.
Which leaves us with Question 2, and the requirement for a simple “yes” or “no” vote. I have been a big believer in public charter schools ever since attending Santiago Charter Middle School in Orange County, California. Before that I attended a magnet program that was also excellent. Both were formative experiences that I believe profoundly affected who I would grow up to become.
I have no experience with privately run charters. I was in a very diverse environment, but as a student on an accelerated learning track my classmates often looked like me, and my experience has no relevance when discussing the needs of underserved populations. My school district was run at the county level, with over 20 elementary schools. My middle school of approximately 1000 students is roughly the same size as the entire enrollment of the school district of Hull, where I currently reside.
Santiago has 42 credentialed educators providing a diverse range of programs including wood shop, theater, dance, Chinese, and various other additions to standard, remedial, and honors curriculums. Hull’s Memorial Middle School has a quarter of the students but almost half the teachers, spends vastly more per pupil, and offers far fewer programs. Economies of scale cannot be achieved unless towns are willing to regionalize their school systems, which seems extremely unlikely to occur.
Which is all to say, educational policy and funding is extremely complex. A yes/no ballot question on charter caps is a very coarse instrument for making policy improvements. And based on my education, experience, and research, I cannot offer a concrete conclusion on whether passing Question 2 will improve things in aggregate, or not. From what I have read, the impacts of Question 2 in the first few years will be primarily in Massachusetts’ larger cities, while the majority of the opposition comes from its smaller suburbs. I don’t want to see public school districts anywhere suffer from decreased enrollment to competing charters if it negatively impacts educational outcomes. But I’m also not sure there is a better policy prescription than charters for continuing to experiment with new programs and approaches for education.
On balance, I think the benefits of more charters at least slightly outweighs the potential downsides.