Charles Chieppo is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School.E-mail: Charlie_Chieppo@hks.harvard.edu
Competition is the taxpayers' best friend. Fair and open competition is a proven tool for ensuring the delivery of high-quality government services at the lowest-possible price. But competition is often threatening, especially to entities — including private ones — that stand to lose market share.
Just witness the deed restrictions the Archdiocese of Boston places on many of the properties it sells. While many disagree with provisions prohibiting the use of the properties for abortion counseling or stem-cell research, they are certainly understandable given the church's teachings.
But similar restrictions on using the land for public charter schools might seem harder to fathom. It turns out that charter schools mean more competition for a parochial-education system that is closing schools and hemorrhaging students. The policy highlights a failure of the archdiocese to be true to its mission.
Traditional public-school districts also have been open about fighting to maintain the educational near-monopoly they once enjoyed. In Massachusetts, they have long fought to de-fund charters and limit their growth. That's why recent events in the fiscally troubled city of Lawrence are so encouraging.
At the beginning of this year, state-appointed receiver Jeffrey Riley took over Lawrence's failing schools. In May, Riley announced that several successful Massachusetts charter schools had agreed to partner with Lawrence's schools by sharing approaches that have made the charters flourish.
Nationwide, charter schools have been a mixed bag, but the picture is very different in Massachusetts. In 2011, 15 charters — including inner-city schools in Boston and Lawrence — ranked first in the commonwealth on state English, math and science tests.
A 2009 study conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers for the Boston Foundation not only found that Massachusetts' charters dramatically outperformed their district counterparts, but that the estimated effect of a year spent in a Boston charter school is often quite similar to that of a year spent in one of the city's elite "exam" schools, which only students who earn the highest scores on a citywide entrance test can attend. In a single year, academic gains are the equivalent of half the size of the achievement gap between black and white students.
Lawrence's own Community Day Charter Public School, whose students scored first in Massachusetts in sixth-grade math last year, and Unlocking Potential, a school turnaround organization, each will partner with an underperforming school to provide managerial oversight, revamp programs and infuse successful instructional techniques. Boston's MATCH Charter Public School will provide 50 tutors to two Lawrence schools, and the Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea will launch an alternative high school that targets dropouts.
Riley and several Massachusetts charter schools have overcome more than 15 years of rancor to help thousands of Lawrence students who are among the neediest in Massachusetts. Hopefully, it will mark an important step toward softening self-interested opposition to the competition that serves society's best interests.