Charters, Public Schools Develop A New, Tenuous Relationship

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BOSTON — The number of charter school students in the city of Boston is expected to double in the coming years, from 5,000 to 10,000. Many of those students will likely leave traditional schools in the city for these new options. With them they’ll take millions of dollars in public funding.

Parents will get a chance to sound off on proposals for new charter schools at a public hearing Tuesday night. Regardless of who makes the cut, the relationship between traditional and charter schools is changing. And it’s not clear how much they should collaborate.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino made news this year when he reversed his position on charter schools. The longtime opponent became a supporter.

“If real reform wins, we look to a day with one system of education in Boston, when there will be no wasteful feuding on charter versus pilot versus traditional public,” Menino said during his inaugural address.

A Developing Relationship Between Charter And Traditional Schools

Last week, Menino brought together the old rivals, “and he invited us to begin a conversation,” said Boston schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, “to talk about how we might work together, partner together, so that we can learn best practices. And as the charter schools expand, we could do very thoughtful planning.”

The number of charter school students in the city of Boston is expected to double in the coming years, from 5,000 to 10,000.

Planning to make sure all the charters don’t end up in the same neighborhood. And how to bus kids to their new charter schools without costing the city too much money, on top of the millions already spent on transportation.

Then there are more sensitive issues.

“There’s nothing good about a vacant building. There’s just nothing ever good about that,” said Kevin Andrews, president of Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Andrews said the new ones will need buildings. And the city of Boston will likely have a lot of empty real estate if it follows through on plans to shutter nine school buildings.

“So what do you need to put in there? Well, charter schools are looking to put children in these schools that may be closed,” Andrews said.

Sharing Access To Parents

The start-ups will also want more effective ways to recruit students. They want to advertise at district information centers. Andrews — who heads Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester — said that’s the best way to fight the stereotype that charter schools cherry-pick the best families.

“They don’t know of the choices they have. It’s not cherry-picking, they just don’t know,” Andrews said. “I’ve still gone to families, in this neighborhood in Dorchester, who don’t know what a charter school is. They don’t know. And we have a responsibility, charter schools, to make sure we get that information out.”

“Well, they already do advertise quite a bit,” Johnson said.

“I think the legislation allows them to request mailing lists from us. We too would like to publicize more of our great schools throughout the city.”

Still, Johnson said she’s started meeting just last week with charter school leaders. Sharing access to parents is something they will continue to discuss.

But not everyone is happy about Boston’s school officials getting friendly with these start-ups.

Opponents Blame Charter Schools For Traditional Schools’ Woes

“These charter schools are not on the up and up,” said Richard Stutman, who heads the Boston Teachers Union. Stutman blames charters for some school closures, and the potential loss of union teaching jobs.

“I don’t think very much of the collaboration, I think it’s nonsense,” he said. “By nonsense, I don’t think it exists. I think it’s a media spin for you.”

Stutman said this new relationship is one-sided. And charters stand to gain everything.

Others worry the growth of charters will create a two-tier system.

“There are parents who are more informed and will go after certain options for their children, and you can’t fault families for wanting to choose the best for their kid,” said Kim Janey, who is with the group Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “But at the same time I think the danger is that you leave the traditional public schools with children who may have different challenges.

“Certainly in the past you did not see charters do everything they could to recruit and attract students with disabilities or English language learners,” Janey said.

Johnson also worries about this, and plans to bring it up in her meetings with charter school leaders.

But whether that means she’ll help them recruit students is far from certain.

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