The expansion of charter schools (and other forms of school choice) has once become a subject of debate, especially in New York City and Boston, where mayoral elections have put the spotlight on the legacies of outgoing mayors in both cities, Michael Bloomberg and Thomas Menino in transforming education. Menino, in particular, has done well in overhauling traditional districts under his control. But it still struggles  to provide all children with high-quality teaching and comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. Expanding charters, as done in cities such as Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, where charters serve, respectively, 41 percent and 76 percent, of all school-aged children (as of 2012, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), can help more families, especially those from poor and minority households, provide their children with opportunities for brighter futures. But Menino has been less-aggressive than other mayors across the country in charter school expansion; only 10 percent of all kids in Beantown are serve by charters. And it will be up to the one of the two men vying to succeed Menino —  Marty Walsh and John Connolly — to make charter school expansion a reality once one of them takes office. 

voiceslogoIn this Voices of the Dropout Nation, real estate executive Jacob Grossman, who co-chairs the advisory board of the Edward Brooke Charter Schools in Boston (and grandson of Kivie Kaplan, who was president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975), explains why expanding charters is critical to addressing the civil rights issue of our time, both in Boston and throughout America. Read, consider, share, and take action.

Recently I listened to an interview with Bernice King, the daughter of the famed civil rights leader, as she spoke about her father and the progress the United States has made fifty years after his March on Washington.  Without question, our country has made great strides in working towards equality. But we are not attentive enough to the largest problem at hand.  With Boston’s mayoral race at the forefront of people’s minds — which coincides with the imminent vacancy of the Boston Public Schools Superintendent post, it is an important time to focus on our schools.

To begin, I must admit that I am a reluctant supporter of charter schools.  As a Republican in tradition of socially liberal and fiscally conservative icons such as former U.S. Senator Edward Brooke, I wish that all of our traditional public schools offered challenging and engrossing opportunities for our kids. But urban public schools continually fall short.  I do not desire to assign blame, but rather highlight a broken system which has lost track of its priority – our children – and focuses instead on the benefits to the adults.  My wife and I grudgingly left our beloved South End neighborhood with our young son because we did not feel confident that he would get a rigorous public education in Boston Public Schools.

Just 10 percent of ninth graders in Boston Public Schools go on to graduate from a four- year college.  Forty-two of families with children in Boston say that they have thought about leaving the city solely because of our schools.  To be abundantly clear, this is not because the administrators or teachers in Boston Public Schools are bad.  The local system and school systems across the country are not arming the players with the tools to win.

I am afraid that we are “educating” a generation of urban kids who will not be equipped with the skills to succeed in life. This isn’t as visible and outwardly hurtful as a “No Blacks” sign over a water fountain, but its consequences are deleterious to society and the people in the system. Statistics show that high school dropouts are eight times more likely to end up in jail or prison than those who graduate.

We are failing our kids by capping charter school growth.  Charter schools are public schools with two major distinctions.  First, they are not subject to union contracts.  Practically speaking, this means they can create their own curriculum, set their own hours, reward effective teachers and terminate ineffective ones – much like any private business. Secondly, to gain placement in a charter school, a parent simply needs to complete an information card to enter their child into a lottery.  A charter school is a free market system whereas a tradition public school is not. Charter school administrators have the opportunity to lead with a focus on meritocracy and efficacy while a union-governed system is ruled by seniority and a politically negotiated contract.

To be more clear: the framework which governs how Boston Public Schools operate (from length of school day, to teacher reward and tenure) is the Boston Teachers Union contract which is negotiated by politicians who also ensure that the streets are clear of trash, potholes are filled, and that crime in the city is on a downward trend.

Charter schools are not the answer to all problems. In fact, there are ineffective charter schools just like there are ineffective traditional public and private schools. However, the competition and innovation that the mere existence and expansion of charter schools creates is a benefit to the students in all our schools. Without a union contract, a charter school can terminate an ineffective teacher, whereas a public school teacher may have tenure. With the ability to create its own curriculum and schedule, a charter school can maximize learning time and provide innovative programming that fosters real and quantifiable learning growth.

As a consumer and business person, I love competition. It generally results in a better outcome for me and my fellow consumers. Companies fighting for my business can result in more pioneering products and better pricing. Why wouldn’t we encourage more competition in our education system? Parents select a charter school because they think their kids will be better off for attending them. If a specific charter school is weak or a specific traditional public school is strong, the market forces will lead to the closure of the bad schools and strengthen demand in the good schools. As a taxpayer, I would like to see our education dollars result in more positive outcomes that will empower our kids to develop skills that will enable them to succeed in life after school.

In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on our strong institutions of higher learning, our entrepreneurship in the life sciences, healthcare and biotech fields, as well as our robust financial services industry. We should expand our national leadership position in education reform and embrace competition supplied by charter school growth.