MASSACHUSETTS HAS long had a commitment to provide every student in the state with the opportunity to study, learn, and develop the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to our democracy. In many ways we have lived up to this promise: Our public schools are the envy of the nation. But in many ways we have not. The economic and racial injustice that plagues our communities is made manifest in urban public schools, which too often lack the resources provided in our wealthier districts.
Students in Holyoke, Boston, New Bedford, and other communities serving larger percentages of poor and minority children do not have the same access to the arts, music, libraries, athletic fields, science labs, and other resources that are available to their counterparts in wealthier districts.
We should be troubled by these inequities and equally troubled by the way that racism contributes to our inattention to this injustice.
The answer, however, is not to abandon our ideals of public education for every student. Rather, it is to recommit both resources and attention to creating the public schools every student deserves.
Commonwealth charter schools — funded with public dollars — are not the answer. They are not the answer because they siphon much-needed funds — $419 million this year alone — from our already underfunded public schools.
They are not the answer because they can be imposed by the state against the will of the community — the parents and other taxpayers who have to pay for these schools and then live with the negative impact they have on the district schools that most of their children attend.
They are not the answer because they too often use suspensions and other methods that push out English-language learners and special needs students, effectively creating what the NAACP calls “separate and unequal conditions for success.” Just take a look at the sky-high suspension rates at Roxbury Prep and so many other charter schools. Where do these students go? Usually back to the district public schools they came from. The districts welcome them, but now have fewer resources to educate a higher-need population.
Even the alleged success stories of some charter schools tell us only one thing: When you limit the range of students, impose hyper-disciplinary practices, and focus intensely on test prep, you may get better test scores, but what is lost? Too often, student experiences of autonomy and creativity are sacrificed.
Further, what happens after charter school students graduate? A study funded by the pro-charter Boston Foundation found that the graduates of the Boston Public Schools go on to complete college at a higher rate than the graduates of Boston’s charter schools.
We need real answers that make a difference for all students and communities. We need to stop the political malpractice of denying the impact of poverty on the lives of our students and instead invest in our communities by supporting living-wage legislation, secure housing, quality health care, and stable, well-compensated employment.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association is working with parents, students and community partners to make this a more equitable Commonwealth, outside and inside our public schools. The MTA is a leader in the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, fighting for a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave, and working to pass a constitutional amendment that would ask millionaires to pay a bit more in order to generate $1.5 billion a year for public education and the maintenance of roads, bridges, and public transportation.
With our partners in the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, we are calling for a three-year moratorium on any new Commonwealth charter schools and on the high-stakes use of testing. This will give us the time and resources we need to engage in broad democratic conversations about what is really needed to create the public schools that every student deserves. The promise of quality public education is a promise worth keeping.
Barbara Madeloni is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.