Wednesday, November 03, 2010

MA: Charter students double in a decade

The number of children in Massachusetts charter schools has more than doubled over the past decade as parents, worried about the quality of their children’s education, have increasingly sought alternatives to traditional public schools.

Charter school enrollment climbed to 27,484 this year, up from 12,518 in 2000, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Globe examined enrollment trends in more than 380 school districts across the state.

“I was ready to leave the city," said Bill Choukas of Dorchester, recalling his unhappiness with the public schools when his son John was assigned to a kindergarten in a neighborhood he considered unsafe. Then his oldest child was accepted into a charter school, and his view began to change.

Now he has three children at Boston Collegiate Charter and one at Neighborhood House Charter, both in Dorchester. He loves the discipline, the uniforms, and what he sees as a good education.

Choukas is following in the footsteps of many other parents, even as some school officials and teachers unions complain that charter schools drain tax dollars from other public schools and that charter schools push out less capable students.

“What upsets my members the most is when people say charter schools are doing a better job," said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The schools pull a different demographic of parent and student, he added. “Charter schools, whether intentionally or not, pull away the most motivated students and parents," and that removes role models in the traditional schools, he said.

The charter schools deny those assertions. “What affluent parents always had, now everyday parents have: choice, choice, choice," said Kevin Andrews, president of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester.

Driving the whole movement are parents who are “tired of sending their kids to terrible schools," he said.

As the number of Massachusetts students in charter schools has doubled over the last decade, the number of schools has also grown. It stands at 63, up from 40 a decade ago, part of a national phenomenon. The number of students in charters across the country has nearly tripled over the past 10 years, to nearly 1.7 million children, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Dennis Shirley, a professor at the Boston College Lynch School of Education, described it as a push-pull situation: Parents are disenchanted with public schools while at the same time they are attracted by the test scores they see at a number of high-achieving charter schools.

Beth Toma moved her two girls to South Shore Charter School in Norwell after her older daughter had a “horrendous experience" with a Weymouth elementary school teacher.

“That was the turning point," said Toma, who helps runs the school library. Weymouth schools were much cooler to having parents volunteer in the classroom, she said, while at the charter she has helped run reading discussions.

Amanda, her older daughter, decided to return to Weymouth High because the larger school offered more in the way of sports and club activities. However, Faith, a seventh-grader, “loves the school."

Charter schools are public schools, funded with public tax dollars, which operate under fewer regulatory restrictions and are usually independent of school districts. Most do not have teachers unions. Admittance may be determined by lottery. Many supporters see charter schools as laboratories for educational innovation.

About 10 charter schools in Massachusetts have fewer than 200 students, and only five have more than 1,000, including the largest, Sabis International in Springfield, with about 1,600.

The growth in charter schools is set against a backdrop of changing enrollments throughout the state’s public schools.

Statewide, about 170 school districts have more children than a decade ago, while more than 200 districts have lost students, state enrollment figures show.

Overall, there are 960,000 public school students, including the charter school students. But charter school students now make up a larger percentage of the statewide enrollment total — about 2.8 percent of that total — than they did 10 years ago.

Charter schools have been operating in Massachusetts since the mid-1990s, and many of the schools boast high MCAS scores and college entrance rates, but are still controversial with some school officials and public teachers unions. A major concern is financial; when students leave for a charter, state education dollars go with them, and that can have a substantial impact. For example, Boston expects to lose about $50 million next year.

The state has used various funding formulas to compensate public schools. A new formula this year reimburses public schools for several years for the students they have lost to charter schools.

The change in reimbursement was part of a major education law signed by Governor Deval Patrick this year that could also allow doubling the number of charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts.

The new reimbursement formula has quieted debate, officials said, but there is still dissent. “You can’t make up that money, even though the state does provide a gradual adjustment," said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Nevertheless, parents are still flocking to charters. Thomas Connors of Hyde Park has had two daughters at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter in Hyde Park, and both have done well. He likes the progress reports that parents get every two weeks on everything from homework to class participation.

“People are really seeking options for quality education for their children and they increasingly see charter schools as a good option," said Susan Thompson, executive director of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, which has grown from 185 students in 2000 to nearly 500.

The school year at the academy is 190 days — 10 days longer than the state requirement — and the day for middle-schoolers lasts from 7:45 to 4:15 p.m. Classes in Mandarin start in seventh grade, and 16 or 17 children each year go to an exchange school in China, some staying for three months.

If there is still antagonism between public schools and charters, there are also signs that they can work together. The Neighborhood House Charter and the Boston public schools system have a partnership, in which Neighborhood House teachers work with teachers from the Harbor Middle School on math instruction.

“The goal is to learn successful practices, wherever they are," said Carol Johnson, Boston school superintendent.


British Universities to be forced to meet quota of underprivileged students

Universities will be forced to meet a quota of students from less well off backgrounds or face being stripped of hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding. Elite institutions including Oxford and Cambridge are to be ordered to increase the number of pupils they accept from state schools by around 300 a year.

More youngsters from less well off regions and from low-income families will also have to be taken on, along with increased levels of ethnic minority students.

Those who fail to meet “benchmarks” set by the Office for Fair Access will forfeit up to a third of the funding they receive in the form of higher tuition fees to be paid by students from 2012. The money would be used to fund schemes designed to recruit more teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Top universities are expected to resist the plans, to be outlined by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, in a Commons statement today.

They were drawn up during hours of wrangling between the Coalition partners amid fears that up to half of the Liberal Democrat MPs could rebel against the decision to nearly treble tuition fees from their current level of £3,290. All of the party’s 57 MPs signed a pledge before the general election to scrap tuition fees altogether.

However, after last month’s announcement that the higher education budget would be slashed by nearly £3 billion as part of the Government’s austerity drive, universities warned that they would not be able to compete internationally without being able to charge significantly higher fees. A review of higher education led by Lord Browne of Madingley, the former head of BP, suggested that the charging cap be scrapped altogether.

Mr Willetts is expected to reject this, and set a new ceiling of between £6,000 and £9,000.

Some universities, including most of the former polytechnics, are likely to charge less £6,000, allowing them to compete for students who do not want to be saddled with major debts. Any institution charging more than £6,000 will have to abide by the quotas which are already set annually by the Office for Fair Access, but which the elite universities in particular often fail to meet.

Last year, Oxford, which has an overall student population of more than 20,000, was ordered to take an extra 270 state school pupils every year for five years – an increase of 4.25 per cent. However, numbers actually fell by 1.5 per cent. Out of an intake of 3,200 pupils in 2009, 1,456 were from state schools and only one was from a black Caribbean background

Universities will be free to decide how to improve participation levels, for example by holding more open days for sixth formers from state schools, or by introducing mentoring schemes. Those who miss their targets will be stripped of a proportion of their funding, and will be required by law to use the money to fund outreach schemes.

In the past, the heads of the elite universities have resisted political pressure to institute “social engineering” in higher education, saying that problem is caused by failures in the system at primary school age.

But a source said: “The Government is allowing universities to charge significantly higher fees – in return, we hope that they appreciate their responsibility to improve social mobility. “The universities are not being given a licence to charge whatever they want. “We want to ensure that the doors to every university are open to children from low income backgrounds wherever they come from.”

Universities will be required to meet benchmarks relating to the numbers of students they accept from three separate groups – relating to low income areas of the country, schools with below average numbers of pupils going on to higher education, and those from deprived families.

A senior Liberal Democrat source said that Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, was confident that his MPs would be won round by the plans, amid reports that as many as 30 had been considering rebelling. The source added: “No one is suggesting that this won’t be easy but what we have been able to do to ensure that low income students are not adversely affected is so significant that we are expecting far more abstentions than votes against.”

Mr Willetts is also expected to announce that graduates will be required to repay student loans on their tuition fees at a rate which will be set at three percentage points above inflation.

A study by the National Union of Students yesterday found that nearly eight out of 10 young people would be put off going to university if fees were raised to £10,000. Aaron Porter, the president of the NUS, said: "Tripling tuition fees would mean thousands of students being put off going to university with students who do go forced to take the bullet for university heads more concerned with lining their pockets than improving education."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College union, added: "England faces the frightening prospect of becoming the most expensive country in the world in which to study at a public university.”


British government declares war on degrees without prospects as university fees are set to hit £9,000 a year

Ministers today declare war on pointless degrees as they prepare to allow universities to charge fees of up to £9,000 a year. Universities Minister David Willetts has vowed to weed out poor quality courses which do little or nothing to improve students’ job prospects.

He wants to rate degrees by the employment rates and salaries of graduates, handing parents and prospective students a mass of information with which to judge their value.

Mr Willetts told the Daily Mail he also wants the best degrees to be given ‘kite marks’ by professional associations as an indication that they are rated highly by employers. Weaker courses would be forced to improve or wither on the vine.

The move comes in tandem with a hugely controversial increase in the cap on university fees, which will be announced to MPs today after last-minute wrangling between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

Rumours were swirling around Westminster that at least one junior Lib Dem member of the government would resign in protest. The Lib Dems, who fought the election promising to scrap tuition fees, have succeeded in blocking plans to allow elite universities to charge unlimited amounts. Instead they will be able to levy fees of up to £9,000 a year, a three-fold increase on the current limit £3,290 a year, from 2012.

Fees for a three-year course could total £27,000 and students could find themselves saddled with £40,000 debts once living costs are included.

Those universities that want to charge more than £6,000 will be subject to ‘fair access conditions’ and will have to demonstrate they are improving access for disadvantaged students, leaving the Government open to charges of social engineering.

The issue of redemption penalties for those who want to pay off loans early is thought to be unresolved. The Lib Dems favour a large penalty to prevent students who go into well-paid jobs benefiting by paying off their debts in a lump sum, but Tory ministers are thought to oppose moves that would hit middle-class parents who help their children.

With graduate unemployment at its highest level in nearly two decades, Mr Willetts said it was vital that parents and students were given better information about whether courses were good value for money in terms of employment rates and salaries.

He also plans to make university admissions body Ucas provide clear information on the standard of teaching, library and IT facilities, weekly contact hours with lecturers, and the cost of halls of residence.

Mr Willetts said: ‘This will give students and their parents the information they really need and value, about everything from the amount of time they’re actually going to get taught to what their job chances and salaries are likely to be. ‘At last, students will be able to see the courses that can get the jobs they aspire to and those that do not perform well.’

Increasing numbers of students have opted for fashionable new courses at the expense of traditional subjects over the last decade. But more than 21,000 who graduated last year were still without work six months later, and 55,000 ended up in stop-gap jobs such as bar work.

Today ministers are expected to announce a public consultation, led by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, into their proposed ‘information revolution’ in the university sector.


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