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Charter Schools Win a High-Profile Convert

JUNE 27, 2009
By JON KELLER
The Wall Street Journal

Boston
Boston’s mayor risks the ire of the teachers’ unions.

Tom Menino, the longtime Democratic mayor of this city, is not known for rocking the boat or for eloquence. But earlier this month he stunned many in the city when he gave a powerful speech about school reform.

The speech took aim at the lack of progress in dozens of low-performing, inner-city Boston public schools, many of which have not met adequate yearly progress for five years running.

“To get the results we seek — at the speed we want — we must make transformative changes that boost achievement for students, improve quality choices for parents, and increase opportunities for teachers,” Mr. Menino said. “We need to empower our educators to quickly innovate and implement what works.” With that, Mr. Menino abandoned nearly two decades of personal opposition to nonunion charter schools, which have been bitterly resisted by Massachusetts teachers unions and their political allies. “I believe that the increased flexibility that charters provide can . . . help us close the achievement gap,” he declared.

“Betrayal,” cried the Boston Teachers Union on its Web site, decrying the “glee” with which Mr. Menino’s “sudden turnaround” was greeted by “anti-public school and anti-tax zealots.” That’s a typically hyperbolic reference to Massachusetts’ growing legions of charter-school supporters, an ideologically-diverse group that includes the Boston Globe’s liberal editorial page, a bipartisan group of state officeholders who’ve funneled billions in new revenue into the public schools, and at least 13,000 pro-charter Boston taxpayers — the 5,000 families with children in charter schools and 8,000 on waiting lists to enroll.

But the inflammatory rhetoric of the Boston Teachers Union reflects the alarm triggered by Mr. Menino’s speech. “He has really thrown down the gauntlet to the union,” notes Linda Brown of the charter-school support group Building Excellent Schools. “He’s responding to an enormous overcurrent and undercurrent of public pressure over the fact that nothing is changing in too many schools. He’s used his political acuteness to see there’s a perfect storm.”

What flashed on Mr. Menino’s radar screen so urgently? Political pressure, most notably from the Obama administration, which has explicitly linked charter-school expansion with access to $5 billion in new education reform funding.

“States that don’t have the stomach or the political will, they’re going to lose out,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press recently. “That’s $5 billion, b-i-l-l-i-o-n, up for grabs,” moaned Mr. Menino in an interview with me. “I’ve gotta sit here sucking my thumb because I can’t get reforms?”

Credit pride and anger for Mr. Menino’s change of heart as well. While he is a prohibitive favorite to win a fifth term this fall, two of his challengers have pointedly endorsed charters and needled him on the lingering failures of many city schools. His palpable embarrassment over his inability to overhaul Boston’s schools is compounded by the sight of — in his view — lesser cities forging ahead with uncapped charter growth.

Mr. Menino tried to accommodate union resistance to charters by experimenting with unionized “pilot” schools that allow limited managerial flexibility in making personnel and budget decisions. But those experiments are failing to improve education and unions remain opposed to charters.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mr. Merino told me, came when a principal of one of the struggling school accepted a grant from ExxonMobil to give teachers small bonuses when their students excelled. The unions “took us to arbitration,” Mr. Menino said, essentially killing the bonuses. So for good measure the mayor included a call for merit pay in his blockbuster school-reform speech. “Every time we try to do a reform they stop it.”

Vestiges of Mr. Menino’s anticharter past and his cautious political instincts remain. He wants to convert 51 failing public schools to “in-district” charters under the control of the city. Initially these schools will be nonunion, but unions may be able to organize their teachers down the road. Still, if results don’t improve or the unions block his plan, Mr. Menino vows to lobby for lifting the state’s restrictive cap on the number of “pure” charter schools. “Charters are a vehicle to get the reforms we need,” he says.

Resistance in the state legislature to charter expansion is already wearing out the patience of even sober civic leaders like Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a large private philanthropy. Creating more charters “couldn’t be a more urgent matter,” he told a legislative committee recently, adding that further delay “borders on criminal.”

The Boston Foundation recently released a study noting that students admitted to charter schools were doing much better than the children they left behind in regular public schools, and better than students in those pilot schools that the mayor supported. The report found, for example, that students in pilot schools did not improve above regular public school students in eighth grade math. Charter-school children vastly improved their scores.

With Mr. Menino now pressing for more charters, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick could soon be under tremendous pressure to do more than pay lip service to the idea. The governor has so far professed support for charters, then supported policies that hamstrung them. For example, he has called for easing caps on charter schools — but only in the worst-performing districts and with restrictions that force them to toss aside the lottery system they use to select students and instead adopt quotas for special education and English-as-a-second-language students.

It’s unclear if such charter policies will meet Mr. Duncan’s federal-funding smell test. It definitely doesn’t satisfy Ms. Brown of Building Excellent Schools. “He cannot keep kicking popular opinion and political sanity aside,” she says.

For Mr. Patrick, whose poll ratings are sagging low enough for some to wonder if he can win re-election in 2010, all of this has to be worrisome. The pro-charter rhetoric from Mr. Menino — who is usually ranked alongside Sen. Edward Kennedy as the state’s most popular politician — is a flashing warning light. He can continue to cave into the teacher unions. Or he can get in line with demands of the Obama administration and offer unqualified support for charter schools.

Mr. Menino, for one, is already well down that path. He says that his own children are eyeing Boston charter schools for two of his grandchildren next fall.

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