The Senate is considering legislation to expand charter schools in Massachusetts. I am deeply interested to know how parents feel about the proposed changes — I give great weight to parents’ perceptions about what approach will best serve their children.
Boston is the real dilemma. In Belmont and Watertown and many other suburbs, parents passionately support their district schools and any competition from charters would be generally unwelcome.1 In the most disadvantaged districts, like Lawrence and Holyoke, charters seem like a needed alternative. But in Boston, there are conflicting considerations — on the one hand, some parents want more options for their kids; on the other hand, they don’t want charters to drain resources from district schools that they support.
What are charter schools?
Charter schools2 are just public schools that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education licenses and supervises. All public schools are regulated by DESE, but most are directly supervised by a school committee. Charter schools are subject to higher accountability than district schools — they have to be reauthorized by DESE every five years.
Charter schools are non-profit entities subjected to most of the same basic rules that apply to public schools (notably the testing requirements for graduation).3 They differ in a few important respects:
- Their teachers can not achieve “professional status” with the limited protections against firing which that confers.
- Although their teachers do have to pass the state teacher’s exam, they do not have to achieve state certification.
- Their teachers can unionize like other teachers, but they typically don’t — the schools start fresh and do not need to bargain with a union about the structure of the school day. Extended learning time is a common feature of charter schools.
- Charter schools are subject to a number of special rules designed to assure that their student population resembles the student population of the districts they serve.
How are charter schools funded?
When students choose to attend a charter school, the school district that they opt-out of has to pay tuition to the charter school. The tuition is computed based on the per pupil spending level of the sending district. So, subject to some adjustments, if a school district has 10,000 students and spends $150,000,000 year, if they lose 1,000 students to a charter school, they will send $15,000,000 to the charter school. Their school budget will have to shrink accordingly.
However, for the sending district, it will not automatically cost less to educate 9,000 students than it does to educate 10,000 students — a sending school district may have to go through some restructuring to be efficient at a lower head-count. In theory, the state recognizes this problem and offers charter tuition reimbursement to give the sending district time to adjust — 100% in the first year and 25% for the next five years.4 In practice, the state tends to fail to fully fund this formula, so reimbursement comes in at a lower level. Also, to the extent that the district had some economies of scale at a higher head-count, those economies may be lost. Larger districts may have the ability to offer more specialized student assistance, advanced courses, etc., but when they shrink, they may be less able to do so.
How would pending legislation expand charter schools?
The number of charters that DESE can issue has risen in a series of steps since charters were introduced in 19935. Currently, the cap stands at 72 statewide. As a further restriction, not more than 9% of any one district’s budget that can be diverted to charters. In the 10% of communities with the lowest test scores, the budget limit is 18%. In those communities, charters above the 9% level do not count against the statewide numeric cap of 72. A number of communities, notably Boston which is subject to the 18% cap, are starting to bump up against their cap. A new charter school takes several years to set up. Although, at the moment, Boston has not reached its cap, the growth already in the pipeline is great enough that planning for new charters is subject to uncertainty created by the cap.
The proposed ballot question would allow 12 additional charters per year statewide, without restriction by the district budget caps, provided that the total number of charter seats added does not exceed 1% of statewide enrollment. Because Boston has relatively high school spending, charters coming into Boston can plan for a higher budget. There are plenty of schools with low test scores in Boston, so for charters with the laudable ambition to raise test scores, Boston is an attractive market. Under the language on the ballot, nothing would stop DESE from putting a disproportionate share of the new charters in Boston, substantially destabilizing the Boston schools. For that reason, I cannot support either the ballot question or the Governor’s similar bill.
The question that remains for me is whether a Boston expansion with some reasonable limits to it is desirable. Mayor Walsh has proposed a moderate approach that allow the diversion of local funding to rise by 1/2 percentage point each year from 18% to 23%. That might or not be the right growth level, but the idea of setting some growth ceiling seems necessary.
What do parents want?
The one thing I hear parents in Boston say with clarity is that they wish that they had good quality neighborhood schools — they don’t want to put their kids on a bus every day and they miss the intimacy with teachers and other parents that comes from routine daily contact in pick-up and drop-off. This is the great advantage that suburban schools have over the Boston schools — the closeness between school and neighborhood. I am not sure how that consideration plays into the charter debate.
I’d really like to hear from parents about their preferences on the charter issue. Of course, there are many other directions that we should be exploring to strengthen local district schools and I’m also interested to hear parents’ thoughts about other directions.
- Generally charter schools have not sought suburban locations, in part due to preferences built into the law. Charter schools may not be sited in communities with populations below 30,000 (unless they are regional charters). See G.L. c. 71, §89(i). A list of currently authorized charters can be viewed by selecting Charter Schools on this DESE search screen.
- In this piece, I use the phrase “charter school” to refer to what are legally known as commonwealth charter schools. Horace Mann charter schools are a hybrid construct that can be created under school district supervision. There are only 4 Horace Mann charter schools among the 82 charter schools listed on the DESE website.
- Chapter 71, Section 89 defines the law of charter schools. Section (s) makes clear that the general laws applicable to schools apply (excepting the professional status laws). Section (v) further clarifies this as to performance and testing. Section (ii) requires passage of the teacher’s exam, but does not require licensing for charter school teachers.
- The tuition computation and reimbursement schedule appear in sections (ff) and (gg) of Chapter 71, Section 89.
- The original 1993 reform legislation set a statewide cap of 25 of which no more than 5 were to be in Boston. The total enrollment was capped at 0.75% of the state’s total school enrollment. In 1997, the legislature raised the cap to 37 charter schools (and 13 Horace Mann charter schools), not more than 6% of any district’s spending, and not more than 2% of the state’s total school enrollment. In 2000, the legislature raised the cap to 72 charter schools (and 48 Horace Mann charter schools), not more than 9% of any district’s spending and not more than 4% of the state’s total school enrollment. The 2010 reform eliminated the 4% state wide cap and raised the 9% district spending cap to 18% in the lowest performing 10% of school districts. Schools added above the 9% level in the lowest performing districts are excluded from the statewide 72 school cap.