The Liftin’ O’ the Cap

The storied halls of Beacon Hill will soon be filled with little lobbyists, demanding the lifting o’ the charter school cap.

That nip o’ green in the air can only mean one thing lasses and lassies. It’s that time of year again, in which the masses rise up to demand an end to the artificial constraints on excellence and innovation, other wise known as the charter school cap. Perhaps in your state this annual celebration of obfuscation wears a different label—the Texan tip’ o’ the 10 gallon? The NYC fedora lift? Here in Massachusetts we call it simply ‘The Liftin’ O’ the Cap.’  So reader, pour yourself a glass of the strong stuff and settle in as I share with ye a fanciful tale indeed.

About that waiting list…

No doubt your state is home to a lengthy waiting list of students trapped in union-stifled public schools. In Massachusetts we call this list a “waiting list” and it is growing lengthier by the day. According to the state charter lobby, which announced its Liftin’ O’ the Cap campaign just this week, there are currently 45,000 students on the list to attend 69 charter schools.That’s up from the 35,000 student figure that the charter lobby was citing on its website up until 3 weeks ago. In other words, demand is skyrocketing.

Whatever the precise length of the list, we are unlikely to meet many of the students who are waiting on it. In one of the oddest rituals of the annual Liftin’ O’ the Cap tradition, proof of the skyrocketing demand for more academies of excellence and innovation will come from the massing of students who already attend them. Your vision is not blurred because of the Jameson; I added the italics for emphasis. And just to add an additional queasy bit o’ detail, since prime time for lobbying and edu-crat deliberation coincides with school hours, the young members of our achievement army will be missing school in order to demand the Liftin’ O’ the Cap. In other words, it’s worth risking the widening of our achievement gap in order to lobby for measures that will fill it with excellence.

Empty seats

Like the magician whose tricks rely upon the stupidity of his thirsty audience, the charter lobby can only spin its dazzling tale of demand by keeping key details hidden. As even a beginning student of charter logic can attest, for example, our local temples of outstandingness are notorious for losing huge numbers of students, particularly (and completely coincidentally) just before the start of standardized testing season. The word, which you will find nowhere on the charter lobby’s Liftin’ O’ the Cap brochure is “attrition,” and it means that there are lots of nice empty seats, just waiting to be occupied by students who are waiting on a waiting list.

Alas, that’s where our tale takes a dastardly turn indeed. You see, another word you will rarely hear our fearless cap lifters utter is “backfill.” Unlike traditional union-stifled public schools where any student who shows up, at any time of the year, gets a seat, even if said seat is on the floor, charter schools in Massachusetts do not have to fill vacancies in the last half of the school year, or in grades 10, 11 or 12 as filling empty seats with new students might cause the dilution of the culture of excellence, much as that ice cube in your glass has diluted the strength of your whiskey.

Tip o my cap, wag of my finger

You will not find any of these pesky, waiting-list reducing details included in the charter lobby’s Liftin’ O’ the Cap brochure. What you will find are plenty of handsome pictures of achieving minority students along with a few cautionary instructions for the charter parents that the lobby hopes to deputize as cap lifters:

Once again, resist any urge to gripe. These meetings are rare opportunities to share the positive impact of your charter school with someone in a position to take direct action on lifting the cap.

But what on earth could these parents possibly have to gripe about?

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EduShyster is Jennifer C. Berkshire, who has spent the past six years writing about public education and urban schools in Massachusetts.