Question 2 on the November ballot is a proposal to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.

The arguments for charter schools are a) they give parents some choice about where to school their children and b) they hold out the promise of competition to improve the quality of schooling in Massachusetts. For parents of children attending a failing school, the option of sending a child to a better school is too inviting to ignore. I can’t argue with that.

However, I will be voting “no.”

For the past quarter century, the push for charter schools has been a distraction, diverting our attention from the real work of improving public education.  At the most fundamental level, the rationale for charter schools is grounded in a free-market approach to public policy. In the marketplace, success is rewarded and failure is a natural corollary of competition. A school finance system that allows for failure in public education is built on the quicksand of bad public policy.  Instead of embracing charters, we should be creating incentives for teachers, parents, and school committees to experiment, reinvent, and reinvigorate public schools.  If there had been those incentives, some follow-through, and the required financial support, we’d have healthier schools and a healthier public conversation.

Not only is the charter movement rooted in dangerous soil, it is a non-answer to the wrong question.  Since the year 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a research arm of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD), has studied the relative efficacy of strategies for improving student performance in countries across the globe.  In their rankings, the U.S. isn’t even within striking distance of top-performing nations.  More significantly, the policies we’ve been pursuing – smaller class size, charter schools, and high-stakes testing – have proven useless at moving the needle on student achievement.  The ONLY thing that works is investing in better teaching – attracting the best and brightest college graduates (Singapore’s teachers come from the top third of their graduating classes), improving teacher-preparation programs and providing mentors for new teachers, raising salaries, and providing professional development and career-ladder opportunities for classroom teachers.  We’ve been having the wrong debate in this state and country!

Question 2 is part of the wrong debate and I’m not buying.