Massachusetts Plays the Lottery with Students’ Futures

Hundreds of families apply for 34 spots at charter school

Last Wednesday, the families of 366 Massachusetts students waited anxiously while their educational fates were decided by a lottery. The families were applying to the Holyoke Community Charter School, one of the best in Massachusetts, but because charter school enrollment is arbitrarily capped in the state, only 34 were chosen to enroll in the school.

Unfortunately, scenes like the one at Holyoke are not uncommon in Massachusetts, where the  law allows only a certain number of charter schools to operate. Student enrollment in charters is capped at 18 percent of the number of public school students, and is even more limited in some regions of the state. The caps create waitlists of desperate families all over Massachusetts, putting schools in the unenviable position of arbitrarily turning away students via lottery, as they did at Holyoke last week.

The stakes are even higher for low-income families, who frequently do not have the means to send their children to private schools, should the luck of the lottery numbers not smile on them. And the options for those who do not win the lottery and cannot scrape together the funds are grim: last year, the Holyoke Public School system was placed under state receivership after a review of the system found that “student achievement and growth in the system were among the lowest overall in the state.” That year, over 600 children applied to 75 seats at Holyoke Community Charter School. Because siblings of current students are given preference in enrollment, only 34 of those seats were available to children outside of the charter school system, making the odds of getting a seat even smaller than applying to many Ivy League universities.

Just months ago, hundreds of families rallied to support an expansion plan proposed by Governor Charlie Baker. Those families, along with those of the 37,000 students on waitlists all over the state, belie the claim by charter opponents that charter schools are no better than the traditional public options. Empirical evidence from studies performed on Boston charter schools backs up parents’ enthusiasm for them. A study of Boston’s charters by researchers at Harvard and MIT found not only that charter school students made significant academic gains over those who were turned away by lottery, but that attending charter schools nearly closed the math score gap between lower-income, inner-city students and those in Boston’s surrounding wealthy suburban schools.

While Massachusetts is praised for its high-performing public school system relative to other states and often ranked as a fairly positive overall environment for charters by some charter advocates, the charter cap in the state has become increasingly toxic for Massachusetts families, especially those of limited means. Last week’s lottery at Holyoke Community Charter is just another reminder that the cap must be eliminated in order for charter schools to continue growing in Massachusetts, so families across the state will no longer need to depend on the bounce of a lottery ball to decide their children’s educational futures.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

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