At the Edward W. Brooke School in Roslindale — a kindergarten-to-eighth-grade public charter school — the push to advance graduates to elite secondary programs begins in fifth grade. That means students are routinely steered toward such private and parochial schools as Milton Academy and Catholic Memorial. How about your standard-issue Boston public district high schools, such as English (in Jamaica Plain) and Madison Park High (in Roxbury)? Almost never. In fact, quite the opposite: Brooke students are told explicitly by advisors and through literature that teenagers who attend Boston district high schools are "unmotivated," "disorganized," and uninterested in education.
The dismal reputation of Boston's district system might be a sad reality of institutions filled with children from broken and low-income families. But according to teachers and administrators who work within the traditional order, charter schools are only exacerbating the problem by using tax revenue to help cycle promising city students out of the district system. In response, charter advocates are unflinching in their belief that the plight of the overall framework should not be a factor in considering the academic future of their select students.
Weighing both sides of the school-choice spat, two things seem certain with regard to Boston charters: 1) many are unfit to accommodate needy, foreign-language-speaking, or poorly behaved students, yet 2) they have proven capable of launching proficient learners onto extraordinary life trajectories. Indeed, the charter movement has by all measures replaced busing as the hot-button issue in a city that will always be the national poster child for operatic battles over public education.
At Roxbury Prep, a charter serving grades six through eight, co-director Will Austin insists that placement counselors do not badmouth such destinations as Dorchester High or Madison Park; still, not a single one of the 54 2009 Prep grads matriculated to Boston public district schools. It's a similar case at Excel Academy in East Boston, where more than two-thirds of students last year fled the district system for private and parochial pastures following commencement. The numbers are similar throughout the Boston public charter schools that terminate in eighth grade.
The charter-school conundrum is hardly isolated to the Boston area, where mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty is hell-bent on vast charter expansion, while incumbent Mayor Tom Menino is reticent to surrender municipal funds to programs that do not answer to his school committee. (In June, Menino did adjust his long-held anti-charter stance and vowed to turn low-performing district schools into alternative programs.)
At the federal level, President Barack Obama infuriated teacher unions (which oppose charter schools because, they claim, they divert funds away from the majority of students) by championing charter growth in his first education address this past March. Statewide, Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed legislation to double the number of charter seats across the Commonwealth to more than 50,000, inciting hundreds to rally at the State House, both in support of and opposition to his plan.
Back in Boston, a September 16 report by the adamantly anti-charter Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) fueled the crossfire, labeling all Boston public charter schools as "dropout factories" and accusing administrators of practicing "selective out-migration."