Saving Our Public Schools Together: SOPS unites champions of public education

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 When a ship is in trouble and in need of support, the communications officers send out an “S.O.S.” which is the international Morse code signal for “Save Our Ship.”

These days, the craft of public education is under attack and the troops need to be rallied in order to set it back on its proper course.

Fortunately, there is a new organization called Save Our Public Schools MA (www.saveourpublicschoolsma.com) that is helping teachers, administrators, parents, and others unite against the people and ideas that would sink our schools and our students.  

“We are a political action committee formed in compliance with the State office of Campaign and Political Finance,” explains Juan Cofield, Chair of Save Our Public Schools (SOPS) and President of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP (NEAC). “Our two primary missions are to inform and educate parents and taxpayers of the severe harm that would come to public schools if Referendum 2 were passed, and also to advocate for the defeat of Question #2.”

While the Boston City Council recently voted to oppose the forthcoming ballot measure, much is left to be done to make sure it is defeated statewide.

“The time is now for us to talk to voters about what’s at stake,” urges SOPS Youth Director Carlos Rojas Álvarez. 

According to 2016 records, public schools across the Commonwealth will lose over $400 million in public funds to help pay for students who transfer to charter schools. Therefore, the more charter schools that are allowed to open, the more funds will disappear from public education. Instead of offering students a so-called “alternative” to public schools that makes their old schools weaker, SOPS posits that the funds could be used to improve the public schools and thereby eliminate the apparent need for charter schools.

“Many parents have been told that charter schools offer the best opportunities for their children,” Cofield observes. “They have been sold a bill of goods! What we need to do is improve the public schools so even the worst performing schools become the best performing schools.”

Combining the formidable forces of such organizations as AFT MA (and many of its locals), AFL-CIO, MTA, the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA), the MA Education Justice Alliance (MEJA) and Jobs with Justice (JWJ), SOPS is intent on uniting the educational community and the communities that are served by it to keep the cap on charter schools and keep public funds in public schools.

“Our public schools cannot afford to lose vital funding while we are seeing programs cut and activities reduced,” maintains BEJA Coordinator Marléna Rose.

“The campaign is currently made up of various parents, educators, students, unions and community groups,” explains SOPS Communications Director Jannae Knospe. “Volunteers and organizers are working together throughout the state to talk to voters about the importance of voting no on the November ballot question regarding the charter school cap.”

 “We want to promote our short-term goals…by turning out these groups’ memberships to our volunteer opportunities,” explains SOPS Community Organizer Max Parish, “and to promote our long-term goals of raising awareness in the community of the school-to-prison pipeline and highstakes testing and drawing community interest, not just for this campaign, but for future ones as well that tackle the privatization of public schools and public services.”

In addition to defeating the ballot measure, SOPS is also dedicated to driving home some key facts amidst a sea of misinformation and massaged numbers. Among these are the following:

 

• Parents and students are under-represented on MA charter school governing boards and 60 percent of charter schools in MA have no parent representation on their boards of trustees. 

 

• Charter schools are publicly funded, yet local communities have no power to oversee their approval or how they operate.

 

 

• Charter schools siphon money from district public schools that could be used to improve education for all students.

 

 

• The charter school ballot question would allow 12 new charter schools to be opened each year and would also allow entire school districts to be run by private charter operators.

 

 

• Even though charter schools are required by law to recruit and retain high-needs students, studies show that most charter schools fail to enroll as many English language learners, special needs students or economically disadvantaged students as the school districts their students come from.

 

• Charter schools in urban areas have especially high discipline and suspension rates, allowing them to boost their test scores by pushing out students who are more difficult to educate.

In 2014, Roxbury Preparatory Charter suspended 59.8 percent of its students, with 94 percent of these suspensions for nonviolent, noncriminal, nondrug-related behavior.
 

 

• Many charter schools suspend students of color and students with special needs at a disproportionate rate. In a recent study, more than 500 charter schools suspended black students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than for white students and over 1,000 charter schools suspended students with disabilities at a rate that was 10 or more percentage points higher than for students without disabilities.

 

 

• A study of charter high schools in Boston showed that only 40 percent of those enrolled as freshmen made it to graduation, compared to 80 percent of those enrolled in the Boston Public Schools.

 

 

• Charter schools often vastly exaggerate claims about the number of students on their waitlists.

An analysis of state data suggests that fewer than 15,000 students are affected by the charter school cap, and the State Auditor has found that many charter schools roll over their waiting lists from year to year, regardless of whether students are still interested.
 

 

• Many students who apply to charter schools choose not to attend when they are offered seats.

A 2013 study conducted for the pro-charter Boston Foundation found that 47 percent of Boston students who were offered seats in charter school lotteries turned them down.

 

• More Boston students are on Boston Public Schools waitlists than on charter school waitlists.

This year, the Boston School Department reports a total of 20,161 students on district school waitlists. 

 

• Charter school students often struggle in college because many charter schools follow a tightly scripted curriculum geared to increasing test scores rather than to encouraging inquiry and understanding.
 

 

• Many charter schools have high teacher turnover, which is disruptive for students and staff alike.

Teacher turnover at charter schools is typically about 25 percent compared to 14 percent at district public schools.

 

 

As so many of these issues have particular bearing on students of color, Cofield and his colleagues at the NAACP are dedicated to doing all they can and have been for some time.

“In 2010, the NAACP passed a resolution which…indicated that they stand for and advocate for high-quality, free public schools for all,” Cofield recalls, placing the emphasis on “all.” With this resolution firmly in mind, Cofield is keen to point out that, if the referendum were passed, it would diminish quality education for all students over time, not just those in certain districts or in certain situations. He therefore urges everyone to get involved.

“The greatest way to get involved is through our phone banking and canvassing opportunities,” Knospe suggests, noting that interested individuals can go to the website and look under “Events.” For those who wish to be involved on a longer-term basis or who just want to be kept informed regarding SOPS MA activities, there is also a “Join Our Team” link on the website as well.

“People can host house parties or be the leader for a neighborhood action like a canvassing or a phone bank,” Knospe says. “We are always looking for teacher and parent spokespeople, so if anyone has stories about the campaign or that will support the campaign, they can share their stories on the website as well and/or write letters to the editors of various publications or letters to representatives.”

Among SOPS’s many parent spokespeople is Field Oganizer Malikka Williams, whose child experienced “harsh disciplinary treatment” in a charter school.

“My goal as a parent,” Williams says, “ is that people will have a open heart that the SOPS campaign is not to take away charters or to continue [to] divide, but to give the people that have suffered...courage to fight for equal and quality education.” Williams goes on to posit that problems arise and divides develop when decision-makers only consider certain statistics (often in certain areas). “My goal in this campaign is to get parents more involved in decision making around public education and to have a strong voice around what education has to look like when serving our children.”

As those who support charter schools are apparently planning to set aside $18 million for their campaign, the team at SOPS MA emphasizes the importance of getting involved and fighting dollars with numbers. As AFT MA President Tom Gosnell noted in his most recent President’s Message (see June/July, 2016 issue), “the campaign will be intense and fierce,” and members need to exercise all the power they can muster by registering to vote and contacting their representatives on a regular basis to make sure their voices are heard.

“Speak to friends and neighbors about the issue,” Gosnell advised,  “Emphasize what important contributions the regular public schools make to society and the economy.  Emphasize that Massachusetts students are number one in the nationwide National Assessment of Educational Progress test and number one in the western world on the international math and science test.  Emphasize that maintenance of this level of achievement requires the investment of resources rather than the loss of resources.”

“To those who say public schools are failing across the board, we say, not true!” says Lisa Guisbond, director of Citizens for Public Schools (www.citizensforpublicschools.org), which is one of the main members of SOPS. “If some public schools are struggling, the last thing they need is to lose critical resources. It makes no sense to cripple public education, a pillar of our democracy.” 

When asked why Citizens for Public Schools (CPS) joined the coalition, Guisbond replies, “we see the ballot question as a dire threat to the health and well being of the schools that serve the vast majority of our students, so there was no question that we would join this fight.”

Guisbond’s group recently released a study that revealed that, despite claims to the contrary by those who support charter schools, the numbers they often cite regarding students who are waiting for openings in charter schools are grossly inflated and often dishonest (see April/May 2016 issue).

“Since a key part of CPS’s mission is to make sure there are enough public funds for our public schools,” Guisbond explains, “we were naturally concerned about the [charter school] ballot question, which threatens to take up to an additional $150 million away from district school budgets year after year.”

While they are clearly happy to take money away from public schools, most charters do not take an equal share of ESL or SPED students. As a result, their testing and other achievement rubrics are also often skewed.

“We also believe that schools should take every kind of child, “ Guisbond says, “and that is not the case for charter schools, which do not educate the same proportion of kids with the most significant disabilities or English language learners.”

While charter schools are the main target for SOPS, there are other goals as well. When asked what he and his colleagues hope to accomplish, Parish offers a short and long answer. “Not only do we want to crush the opposition on this ballot question,” he says, “we want to collect e-mail addresses for future campaigns…and also form long-lasting progressive partnerships with individuals and organizations in the regions we are working with to create a sustainable movement towards improving the quality of public education and the experience and treatment of teachers moving forward.“

While the ballot question is the core of the campaign, Rose agrees that there are other goals as well. 

“We seek to build informed communities, versed in budget, testing and accountability and other issues related to education justice,” she explains. “This work will continue far after the elections.”

No matter what they do, however, the members of the SOPS coalition will stay focused on our students and the future of public education in MA and beyond.

“We need to protect education access for all students and make sure all students have resources,” Knospe maintains, urging colleagues to do all they can to be involved and to make sure they are heard. “The more people we have on the ground, the more people we can talk to and the more good we can do.”