Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Latino Students, Charter Schools and the Massachusetts Ballot Question

This Election Day, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state — a hotly contested ballot measure that’s drawn more than $34 million in fundraising among the two sides and garnered national attention, with parents of students of color and advocates for minority students on both sides of the issue.

Question 2 on the state’s ballot would allow for the creation of 12 new charter schools or the expansion of existing campuses each year, lifting the statewide cap of 120.

Proponents, including U.S. Secretary of Education John King, have said charter schools play a crucial role in improving student learning and closing the achievement gaps. On the other hand, opponents of the measure — among them Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh — argue that these publicly funded, privately operated schools perpetuate inequities by taking resources away from the traditional public schools that educate large numbers of minority children.

While the referendum would not affect 96 percent of school districts in the state, it has the potential to heavily affect Latino students, who make up 71 percent of the student population in the districts that would be eligible for charter expansion. Last year, The Boston Globe reports, 58 percent of charter school students in Massachusetts were black and Latino, compared with 27 percent in schools statewide.

A recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools suggests support for charter schools is growing among Latino families nationwide. The number of Latino students in these schools grew from 21 percent of the student population in the 2003-04 school year to 30 percent in 2013-14, according to the advocacy organization. Also, 85 percent of Latino parents said they favor allowing families to choose their public school, regardless of where they live, according to a nationally representative poll commissioned by the alliance.

A Stanford University study of charter schools in urban areas found Hispanic students and students learning English as a second language see stronger academic growth in charter schools when compared to peers in traditional public schools. This holds true in Massachusetts, where Latino students and English-language learners in charter schools have higher proficiency rates on the state’s standardized assessment when compared to their peers in more traditional schools, according to an analysis by The Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The achievement gap between white and Latino students is also lower in the state’s charter schools. 

But charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have been criticized for appearing to exacerbate school segregation. In cities like Boston, Lawrence and Lynn, Massachusetts, charters enroll larger proportions of minority students than traditional public schools. In some urban areas, more than 90 percent of charter school students are black and Latino, according to the Globe.

Early polling suggests 40 percent of white voters and 53 percent of nonwhite voters support charter school expansion in the state, including one Boston-area mother from Guatemala, Claudia Rodriguez, who told The New York Times that she already voted “yes” to Question 2 because “it’s about choice.”

Irlande Plancher, a Haitian immigrant in the same neighborhood plans to vote “no” after witnessing the closure of two traditional public schools in her area that also is now home to four charter schools. 

“I think whatever we have is enough,” said Plancher, whose youngest child attended a charter school. “We cannot pick and choose which kids we educate and leave the rest out.”

According to a WBUR poll, as of September, 48 percent of the state’s voters planned to vote with Plancher, compared with 41 percent who favored the ballot measure.

For more on the Massachusetts charter school debate and its implications extending beyond state borders, check out our recent EWA Radio episode, “Battle in the Bay State: Charter Foes and Supporters Square Off.”