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Jeff Wagenheim: Charter schools are needed engines of innovation

Let’s start with the most volatile issue facing our schools: money. The authors say the Northampton school district loses thousands of dollars a year for each city child who attends a charter, but neglect to mention that the district is reimbursed every last penny the first year, then 25 percent of tuition increases in each of the next five years. So in the case of my daughter, who started at Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School when she was a kindergartner, Northampton will still be receiving funding on her behalf when she’s in fifth grade, even though she will not have spent a day in the city’s schools.

Keisch Polin and Scott write disdainfully of the state funding that charters receive as if it were money squandered, when in fact it’s used for that frivolous purpose known as educating children. Educating them creatively and as individuals.

And what children are we talking about? The authors claim that charters are “selective” in the kids they take. But Hilltown, like other charters, uses a lottery. It’s open to all. Any family can put its children’s names in the hat, and classroom slots are filled according to the luck of the draw — not in deference to some sinister measure of socioeconomic status or learning ability.

Among the column’s other untruths:

• That “charters are privately managed and operated.” Not in the Pioneer Valley, or anywhere else in Massachusetts, they aren’t. Our charter schools are independent but not private.

• That charters “have little to no accountability to the communities in which they reside.” The teachers and administrators at Hilltown and other area charters are public employees with strict accountability guidelines, which are available for public perusal. Polin and Scott confuse “accountability” with “control.” Charters are not controlled by the districts but are held to higher standards of accountability by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

• That charters tend to have “significant attrition rates based on student academic and behavioral performance.” Hilltown has 2 percent attrition, less than a third of that in the Northampton schools. And even that low figure is deceptive, as most who depart our small kindergarten through Grade 8 community are middle school-age kids who simply feel ready for a larger school environment.

The cynical implication in the piece is that charter schools weed out children with special educational needs, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hilltown provides special education services at a rate comparable to those of local districts. In our family’s three years at the school, we’ve seen children of all abilities treated with nothing but respect, patience, compassion, admiration and inspiration. It’s a truly loving community.

I wish I could view the column as the work of a naïve graduate student who’s ingested scholarly literature but never spent a day at a charter school. But when I see that the Ph.D. candidate’s co-author is an incoming member of the state teachers’ union executive board, the underlying agenda becomes clear.

They trot out the same tired arguments that have stunted the conversation for 20 years — that’s two decades in which charters like Hilltown have transformed the learning paradigm for those children fortunate enough to win a spot. Rather than trying to tear down these innovative public schools that excel, we should be putting our energy toward making that rich experience available to all children.

Jeff Wagenheim of Northampton is a parent of two children at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Haydenville.

I welcome a public conversation about these issues (and you will see this in next week’s Gazette), but because you chose to dismiss me, and thus my credibility, I feel a need to respond to you directly. Interesting how graduate school equates with “naïve.” Never mind that I was also a certified teacher, spent nearly a decade as a researcher in k-16 classrooms, and taught in a public university for several years. Tim and I also produced a weekly documentary radio show on public education – which led me to get to know teachers, students, scholars and activists around the country who are fighting for true and universal public education. And of course, as mentioned in the article, I am a member of the school council at Bridge Street School, which has allowed me an intimate look at how this school has struggled in the face of wide-scale disinvestment in public education. This was in addition to the eight years I spent in graduate school studying education policy – and yes, some of that time was reading scholarly literature – how naïve! None of this even matters – I could simply be a public school parent who took the time to examine the numbers at the state and municipal levels. I don’t need to step inside a charter school because it doesn’t matter whether what is happening inside a charter school is high quality or not – it is the way they are operated and funded that I, and many others, take issue with.

I didn't dismiss you as naive. I dismissed you as someone whose "facts" cannot be trusted because, in an attempt to strengthen your point, you purposely left out half of the monetary picture. The educational credentials you cite make this distortion all the more egregious. I would have welcomed reading the perspective of "a public school parent who took the time to examine the numbers at the state and municipal levels" -- if that parent were intellectually honest enough to present all of the numbers, not just those that serve his or her cause.

Uninformed? Actually, the Northampton schools are not ever getting every last penny: DESE estimates that it would require $103 million to fully fund the state’s obligation to reimburse cities and towns for a portion of the Chapter 70 aid lost to charter schools, as required in the 2010 education reform statute. H. 1 included an appropriation of $80.3 million, but the Senate budget would fund the account at only $76.4 million. The Senate rejected an amendment to fully fund the state’s share next year at $103 million.

Jeff, I am happy to have a public conversation about these issues (and you will see this in next week’s Gazette), but have no interest in participating in superficial dismissiveness. Interesting how one becomes “naïve” after deciding to go to graduate school. Never mind that I was also a certified teacher and spent nearly a decade doing non-profit research in k-16 classrooms. And of course, as mentioned in the article, I am a member of the school council at Bridge Street School, which has allowed me an incredibly intimate look at how this school has struggled in the face of wide-scale disinvestment in public education. This was in addition to the eight years I spent in graduate school studying education policy (which includes the history of the charter school movement) – and yes, some of that time was reading scholarly literature – how naïve! However, none of this even matters – I could simply be a public school parent (and I am) who took the time to examine the numbers at the state and municipal levels - it doesn’t take reading scholarly literature to do that. I don’t need to step inside a charter school because it doesn’t matter to me whether what is happening inside a charter school is high quality or not – it is the way they are operated and funded that I, and many others, take issue with. And with regard to my colleague being a member of the MTA– members of unions fighting for fair working conditions aren't the ones with the agenda (unless it is an agenda of social and economic justice) – it is those who critique them for being members – as we saw in Wisconsin, right? The point is, you have know idea what my background is or what motivates me to engage in these discussions. So please, we are both members of this very small community, we are both parents, and we likely have many mutual acquaintances. Let’s continue with a mature conversation about the issues, not about whether or not we have the credibility to be speaking about them.

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