Dan Klatz: Charters are public, just as state parks are public 

Published: 9/9/2016 7:53:30 PM


Several recent opinion columns in the Gazette highlight problems voters face in making informed decisions on lifting the cap on charter schools.

In one, Brian Mulvehill refers to charter schools as “semi-public.”  The use of the term “semi” leads readers to believe these schools are only partially or half public.

Charter schools are public schools approved by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the democratically elected governor, and authorized by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a state agency working under the direction of the elected legislative and executive branches of state government.

Not partially, not only somewhat, not half — they are fully public schools.

In March, Max Page and Eve Weinbaum wrote in a Gazette guest column that “Commonwealth charters are publicly funded but privately run schools with minimal oversight.”

Several times in their piece, they use the word “private” in describing charter schools. Charter schools in Massachusetts are public entities and are rigorously evaluated on an annual basis. They are subject to the same regulatory oversight with regard to special education, English language learners and civil rights as all public schools.

It is true that public charter schools do not report to local districts, but rather to the state. To imply that this somehow makes them private is like claiming that state parks are private since they are not controlled by the local municipality. It’s a silly argument, but seems calculated to evoke a negative feeling about charters.

For a long time, public schools were only one thing: the school system of the municipality of one’s residence. If for any number of reasons a family felt the school was not working for their child, they had no public options. They could attend a private (used correctly here) or parochial school, but that cost money, and didn’t have to work under the basic regulations governing public schools including those that pertain to special education.

The Massachusetts Legislature re-envisioned education with the Education Reform Act of 1993. That act opened up public choice for parents through the creation of charter schools. Charters are founded locally, by citizens, teachers, and those who seek to promote education in our communities. With the addition of school choice, families now had options to send a child to the district school based on town of residence.

Families had control to consider their child’s needs and the best setting to meet those needs. I encourage people to talk with families that have exercised this choice, either to a charter school, or another district school.

Ask them what it has meant to their child and their family to have this opportunity. Ask them how they would feel if these options were no longer available. I believe in giving parents the right to exercise choice in the public education their child receives, and that the presence of educational alternatives makes the overall public system stronger.

This is not a critique of district schools, as I know that many children have excellent experiences in their district schools. But a diversified public system that offers alternatives can serve more children in varied ways.

It is important to remember that this is a relatively new experience, and there is plenty for room for improvement. From my perspective, choices make for a more democratic system, as parents feel disenfranchised and helpless when they are unable to obtain the best possible education for their child.

Charter public schools have given tens of thousands of families, primarily in urban centers, an opportunity for a great education. And Massachusetts leads the nation in implementing and sustaining a rigorous process for the approval and oversight of charter schools.

Under the ballot question, new charters and enrollment expansions would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools and the number of students enrolled in them.

The ballot question prioritizes the districts in the bottom 25 percent -- not Northampton or any of the districts in Hampshire County.

There are valid points on both sides of the debate, and everyone agrees that greater funding for education is necessary.

Dan Klatz is education coordinator of the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Easthampton.

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