Massachusetts · School Talk

Former Elected Official Way Off Base When She Claims Massachusetts Charters Serve “Barely Any” Special needs or ELL students

The casual and constant misrepresentation of facts by former Worcester school committee member Tracy Novick  is wrong at its core because it seeks to erase the very real stories of students and families for whom school choice has been a life-line. Children with autism, processing disorders, behavioral disorders, and dyslexia are served every single day by charter schools and by district schools. Students who need extra support with the English language are thriving in charters as well.  

Novick used to be a school committee member in the city of Worcester and she never made any secret of her disdain for charter schools, Common Core, PARCC or pretty much any other initiative that she saw as an attempt to reform the educational system and move away from the status-quo in Massachusetts. Families apparently didn’t agree – she lost her bid for re-election.

More Like “Barely True”

But a tweet from her yesterday serves as the quintessential example of just how willing and ready the anti-charter crowd is to dismiss the stories of high needs children being well served by charter schools.  And it also demonstrates their frustrating propensity  for repeating the same false statements over and over in the hope that, just maybe, they can create their own version of the truth.

No such luck.

Novick made the claim that the only reason Massachusetts charter schools are seeing strong results with special needs and ELL students is because they “barely have any.”

While there are certainly cases where a district school may have more students designated as having a disability or as an English Language Learner than a charter,  the converse is also true.  I knew her statement to be absurd on its face, but I decided to revisit some of the state’s charter data as well as some district school data from her own city of Worcester to get a more precise sense of just how wrong she was.

I was quickly able to confirm quickly that Novick’s claim that charters “barely have any” students in special education or in need of ELL services is false. I was also able to confirm that she may need to start lobbying for the closing of some district schools right in her own city based on her apparent belief that schools with low percentages of high need students don’t deserve to even exist in the baystate. Uh oh.

The Numbers

Match Charter School, has 16.1 percent special education students  and 33 percent ELL students.

Lakeview, a K-6 district school in Worcester serves a special education population of  11.8 percent.

Chandler Elementary, also a district school in Worcester is 10.9 percent special ed and 9 percent ELL.

Worcester Arts Magnet School only has 8.9 percent special education students.  Their ELL percentage is 18.1.

Kipp Academy Charter School in Lynn serves 12 percent special ed and 23.8 percent ELL.

The state average for ELL population in a school is 9 percent.

Roxbury Prep Charter has a special education population of 15.5 percent and its ELL population is 14.2.

Excel Academy Charter School is 17.1 percent special needs. The state average is 17.2 percent.

(All numbers taken directly from the Massachusettes Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website)

Missing the Point

Selective outrage defines so many on the anti-charter side (and it defines too many on the pro-charter side too.)  There are critiques of some charter schools in Massachusetts, and everywhere, that are fair and justified. But that’s true for any school of any type in any state.

But more concerning than Novick’s carelessness with the facts, is the very assumption within her assertion that students with IEPs and English language learners are a political football, to be avoided by some schools and embraced by others.  It is a serious error to assign moral superiority to one set of educators over another, for any reason; it is even worse when it involves our most vulnerable children.

We should be working together to fight against the dangerous trend of over-identifying black boys as needing special education services for behavior but failing to question whether their classroom teachers were effective in literacy, numeracy, or cultural competency..

We should be working together to ensure that all parents  and students have the necessary information about all of their school options (and that it’s in a language they know how to read!) They deserve to know that according to the CREDO study and according to research recently done by an MIT doctoral student, students with IEPs are actually served better in Massachusetts charter schools.

Special Education students in charter schools see significantly larger growth than their counterparts in TPS in reading and math. (CREDO study, p. 26)

More recently, Elizabeth Setren, an MIT doctoral student in Economics, confirmed those findings.

Setren compared the achievement of special needs lottery applicants in charters and in traditional public schools, and was surprised to discover that across the board, regardless of their level of need, these students are much more successful in charter schools. In fact, for English-language learners, a year in a charter school essentially allowed them to catch up to native English speakers in traditional public schools, erasing much of the achievement gap that typically exists.

We really should be asking ourselves why we’ve allowed a twisted narrative to take hold that high percentages of students on IEPS is the goal and is a metric that somehow makes a school more virtuous than another. And let’s not pretend either that special education does not bring with it the perverse incentive to over-identify students as a way to increase aid dollars.

It seems that people have forgotten that the goal of an ELL program is that students are ultimately exited from it. And in the case of many students with IEPs, their aspiration too is to exit the program. These are not labels that are supposed to follow all children forever and they certainly are not designed to provide ammunition and fodder in the charter school wars.

Tracy Novick and others who work hard to limit to seats in charters and then cry foul that they don’t serve enough kids should put their money where their mouth is and support the elimination of any charter cap so that charters have the freedom to serve every single child who applies. Perhaps then they’ll finally be willing to admit what we already know: that charter schools do in fact serve children with special needs and children who are classified as English language learners. And that they serve them well.

Until that time, it’s a safe bet that her comments and tweets about charter schools will continue to be “barely true.”


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