The heated debate over the growth of charter schools in Massachusetts continues to escalate, as advocates and opponents wrangle in legal suits and wage aggressive public relation campaigns to sway parents’ opinions.
Leaders of the Cambridge school district took the unusual step earlier this month of mailing letters to about 4,000 parents, touting the advantages of the city’s regular public schools and warning that students who attend a new charter school opening there in the fall can’t participate on sports teams or other district extracurricular activities.
The Jan. 3 letter also cited a recent U.S. Department of Education study that found students’ test scores in several states were better in regular public schools than in charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently. The letter went on to note that the planned Cambridge charter school did not yet have a location and would offer a more limited array of course offerings than the city’s own public schools.
Other districts have challenged the opening of new charter schools by filing lawsuits against the Massachusetts state board of education. Critics say the panel has been too aggressive in approving new charters, even in the face of intense community opposition.
School committees in the Hudson, Marlborough, and Maynard school districts—in suburbs west of Boston—sued the state board last spring, after the board approved a new Advanced Math and Science Academy charter school that will draw students from the region.
The districts have argued, among other contentions, that the state board failed to follow its own policies when it approved the application without allowing district leaders and the public to see a revised application plan for the school.
Last month, a superior-court judge rejected the state board’s request for dismissal of the case.
Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, is a staunch supporter of charter schools. Last summer, he vetoed a legislative effort to impose a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools in Massachusetts.
The chasm between local communities and public school districts, on the one hand, and Mr. Romney and state education officials, on the other, has made for a testy atmosphere, according to Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
“It’s a white-hot issue here,” said Mr. Koocher, whose group represents local school boards. “There is a clear perception that community leaders are not being heard.”
David P. Driscoll, the state commissioner of education, acknowledged that the department of education and state board could do a better job of being more responsive at public hearings on proposed charters, but said that the debate comes down to a fundamental difference.
“There is a disconnect between the critics who see [charter approvals] as a debate on charter schools in general, and the real intent of the law, which is to have charter schools,” he said. “We will never be able to satisfy our critics, because they don’t want charter schools.”
In Cambridge, the Community Charter School of Cambridge is scheduled to open next fall, despite fierce opposition by the City Council, the school committee, the mayor, and many community groups. The school, which will eventually house grades 7-12, is being launched by a former principal of the public Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
Josie Patterson, the public-information director for the 6,750-student Cambridge district, said the charter school’s leaders have been aggressively recruiting public school students through personal phone calls and letters.
In the district’s own letter, she said, Cambridge school administrators wanted to make sure families had as much information as possible about the benefits of the district.
Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, said that criticism of a particular charter school that hasn’t even opened yet reflects the skepticism that officials of regular public schools have toward charters.
Mr. Kenen noted there are now 56 charter schools in Massachusetts and a waiting list statewide of some 15,000 students—a sign of growing demand.
But Paul Dunphy, a policy analyst with the Boston-based Citizens for Public Schools, said those numbers are suspect, given Massachusetts Department of Education figures that show 34 charter schools have fewer students than they reported they would have on reports filed with the state last spring.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Debate Over Charter Schools Rages in Mass.