This Week’s Education Reform Vote

This week, the Senate will vote on a major education package.  It is a compromise legislative response to the question raised on the November ballot about the expansion of charter schools, but it speaks to broader education issues.

It is not a compromise between the charter proponents who have offered the ballot question and the teachers unions who are organizing to oppose it.  Neither side is happy with the bill, and, in fact, neither side was directly involved in the development of it. Rather, the bill is a compromise among the members of a working group of senators with diverse views who have given education policy a lot of thought.

The working group has chosen to go beyond the narrow debate about charter schools to ask:  What do we need to do to improve education for all the children of Massachusetts? That has to be the right question and my vote for the bill will be a vote to keep that conversation alive on Beacon Hill.

At the core of the bill is a commitment to raise local education aid following the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission which concluded that health care and other costs are under-counted in the computation of how much education aid communities need to run good quality schools.

The commitment is phased in over 7 years starting in 2019 and the increase in the charter cap is tied to the actual delivery of the increased aid.  A vote of this year’s legislators will not bind future legislators, so the commitment is subject to future budgetary decisions.

The legislature has a mixed record on meeting long-term local aid commitments.  It did well in meeting the aid commitments that it made in 1993, but the 2008 recession derailed the four-year commitment that the legislature made in 2006 to redress the deficiencies of the 1993 formula.

Future legislators will have a hard time meeting the commitment unless either (a) we are blessed by a decade of accelerating economic expansion or (b) the people approve the income tax increase on the wealthy that is likely to appear on the ballot in 2018.   While the commitment is not made contingent on that ballot question, the timing of the increase reflects the timing of revenue increases that the ballot question would yield.

I expect to vote for amendments that would give local governments control over state-chartered schools seeking to expand into their communities.  All of the communities that I represent — Belmont, Watertown and Boston — pay for the bulk of their education costs with local resources.  It is not consistent with basic accountability concepts for the state to force them to accept the costs of paying for state-chartered schools.

The accountability issues are reversed in communities where the state pays the vast majority of the costs.  In these high poverty communities, average  test scores tend to be low, and many parents are seeking alternatives to the existing district school system.  In these communities, local control may not be the right approach, but many senators feel uncomfortable varying the level of local control over charters based on poverty levels or average test scores .

The bill includes a host of changes in the regulation of charter schools.  These changes add undesirable complexity and some of them may be crippling. Instead, the state should be looking for ways to simplify the compliance burdens on teachers and school administrators in both charter schools and public schools.

The bill, as written, has critical flaws, but I hope we can move it forward so as to keep alive the legislative conversation about how to help all the children of the Commonwealth.

Previous posts on charter schools

Responding to Lisa’s question below — the bill includes the following new regulations on charter schools:

  • Subjects them to state rules regarding student conduct policies and discipline
  • Requires them to continue to provide services to students that they expel
  • Request them to form a disciplinary appeals process through their board of trustees
  • Prohibits them from expelling a student based on academic performance
  • Regulates the membership of their trustees of directors — adding teachers, school committee members, parents and students
  • Limits expansion of a charter school if its suspension rate within any particular subgroup exceeds the suspension rate in sending district schools
  • Requires every charter school application to analyze the impact of the charter on the sending district including impacts related to fixed and variable costs
  • Requires every charter school applicant to meet with sending district superintendents to review how the school will complement the curriculum and instruction of the districts
  • Requires all charter schools to work with either an opt-out admissions approach or to merge their application process with the district school’s application process or to target only high need students
  • Requires disclosure on the internet of all contracts for the procuruement of services, equipment and supplies
  • Disallows the assertion of proprietary claims over any procedure, policy or curriculum implemented in a charter school
  • Prohibits charter schools from charging tuition and fees and from requiring parents or guardians to sign any contract with the school (which would appear to include contracts about supporting homework and disciplinary rules)
  • Requires charter schools to back fill any seat that opens up during the school year
  • Requires charter schools to comply with state bidding and prevailing wage statutes
  • Requires their boards to comply with state public record, open meeting and conflict of interest statutes
  • Requires that charter school teachers who unionize automatically receive comparable compensation to teachers in the sending district’s collective bargaining unit

Public schools in Massachusetts comply with many of these rules and we have developed a sophisticated class of administrators who are capable of making education work under these rules. Charter schools will have to hire people with this kind of compliance experience. These people are in scarce supply. While the goals of these rules are all laudable, and I understand the appeal of a “level playing field”, applying all these rules to charters will greatly raise the barriers to entry and costs of operation for charter schools and reduce the flexibility that they have to create new options for students.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

54 replies on “This Week’s Education Reform Vote”

  1. Can you be more specific about the regulations you think are onerous on the charter schools in the Rise Act? I was pleased to see accountability measures put in place, such as certification requirements for charter teachers, backfilling seats and equitable pay for charter teachers. These measures keep the focus on quality of education for ALL students and will prevent charter operators from enriching people at the top while kids are taught by less qualified and exploited workers. If an amendment can be added to the bill requiring charters be transparent about their methods of keeping waitlists, that would be even better.

      1. I don’t think that I know enough, presently, about the differences between charter and district schools. But, until I hear that the requirements for the charter teachers are much more similar to the district teachers and that the charter schools are obliged to take the same type of student personnel as the district schools,I feel strongly that charter schools should not be given the opportunity to join the US educational teaching system.So, for me, NO charter schools period, until the aforementioned requirements are met.

  2. As usual, you have been very thoughtful in your analysis of this legislation and I trust your hope that the legislation will continue the conversation. I have two comments that I believe are factual: 1) The sustainability of our democracy lies in our educational system; 2) The push towards charter schools is due to our failure to support our public school system. My own daughter, who I believe could be an excellent teacher, is doing online tutoring, because both the pay and support for teachers has been unbelieveably bad during her years of teaching in both private and public schools. As a nation, we no longer respect our teachers. Until that turns around we will get nowhere. Last night I heard about a young teacher in another state who can’t make enough money teaching so she deals poker. A sad statement when we have casinos coming to MA. We have some of the best educated young people, who could be good teachers with increased pay and respect, who are working in fields unimaginable to them and their parents. There is no incentive for these young people to take on the college debt necessary to train as teachers only to be shuttled from one school to another because no one wants to give them tenure. Then the schools trump up reasons why they should be let go which further undermines their self confidence and will to bother. Okay, I will get off my soapbox, but not without stating that our general lack of support for teachers in our society is going to really hurt us down the road. Thanks for listening!

  3. I am against charter schools, because they skim off the best students from minority and poorly funded schools. That
    leaves those schools with more and more difficult to teach students.

    It would be fairer to increase spending on schools and distribute more of the revenue to schools in poor and minority districts. Otherwise we face decreasing social cohesion.

  4. It is a tired question “what to do about quality education for all” and I do appreciate the efforts that have and will be made to change the previous lack of success. Charter Schools have helped kids and families but they should have been part of a much grander to plan to accomplish that long stated goal. Unfortunately, mostly the poor, the immigrant, the people of color all living in less safe and less serviced neighborhoods don’t get nearly their share. The only first issue is that people of greater means need to pay additional taxes on a graduated basis. That is the only first issue. More curriculum based, staffing based, educational materials based answers when attempted without solving the “first issue” will still fail many children and families.

  5. From this morning’s Globe:

    “If I’m only losing a few kids out of a school, truly, all my expenses are the same,” said Daniel J. Warwick, the superintendent in Springfield, which saw about $31 million in state aid diverted to charter schools this year. “So even if I get a reimbursement, it’s a significant loss of revenue. It . . . has a real negative impact, primarily on the poorest urban districts that have the worst funding stream to begin with.”

    Personally, in November I will be voting against this new plan.

  6. Thanks, Will,
    Michael Levenson’s story in today’s Boston Globe appears to describe another alternative. I’m trying to comprehend the big picture but admit my head is spinning with the effort! Globe story partly quoted below. Is it in any way congruous with your bill?

    Both sides agree that if state lawmakers increased the overall amount of state aid, it could ease, if not end, the tug-of-war between charter and district schools.

    A compromise proposed by several senators last week would do just that: increase new state aid for all schools by $1.4 billion over seven years while lifting the cap on charter schools in Boston and other low-performing districts. If the state failed to live up to that aid commitment, there would be a commensurate limitation on the number of new charter schools allowed each year. The bill received a chilly response from both charter critics and supporters.

  7. Will, thanks for your thoughtful analysis. This proposed legislation is, unfortunately, unlikely to resolve this issue prior to the ballot initiative. We need more good public schools in low performing districts, and that includes charters.

  8. Will,
    I am glad that you and the legislature are looking at the issue of charter schools as an ongoing, flexible way. We must not allow the effect of charters to reduce spending for public schools.
    And I wish we could increase the state budget for education by increasing the tax rate for the wealthy before 2018!!!
    Anne Covino Goldenberg

  9. Will,
    I’m going to trust your judgment on this one. I am very suspicious of charter schools and the conservative, anti-union agenda that often drive them. Accountability and transparency are key to honestly trying to improve state education systems. I do not trust our Republican governor (why would I?). Also, I agree with Anne about increasing taxes on the highest earners to fund education. Jeepers, that’s a no brainer! Keep up the good work, thank you.

  10. Thank you for your newsletters and your explanation of your votes. I have no comment on this education issue and trust your judgment on this.

  11. Thank you for your honesty and understanding of the complexity of this issue. While I do not believe that raising the charter cap will benefit students of the Commonwealth overall, I do think that a revision of the Chapter 70 funding formula in light of the recent recommendations is crucial for educational success in MA. Unfortunately, many of the localities that need increased state aid most desperately are also those not benefiting from charter schools (especially the Gateway cities). But incorporating increased aid into any agreement to increase the cap is an important step, and one that the ballot question version of this would not accomplish.

  12. I don’t claim to understand the complexity of charter schools, educational funding and probably most of these proposals but as a teacher with 34 years experience and a Master’s from Harvard, my revolutionary idea is: let the public schools do just as the charter schools do instead of further hamstringing them with various charges that Charter Schools evade. Independence, creativity and achievement could be results as well as an empowered administration, School Committee and faculty. Easier said than done but in the long run, solves the problem of draining funds from the public schools.

  13. $$$, this bill is largely about funding and not student’s education. The tired and flawed equation that more money means better education is disproved throughout the state and the nation especially in poor and urban schools.
    I look forward to seeing how the Senate squares this circle and predict that the students most in need will be the least better off.
    It is also worth noting the Senate’s early prejudice for a Wealth Tax; more money is always the fall back position.


    1. One of the disparities of the wealth divide is the way education is funded.(through property taxes). This makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. Property taxes in low income areas burden low income people more and in wealthier communities force out lower income people. To solve this the state should pick up all the instructional costs of education and the communities do the infrastructure.

    2. The greatest benefit to low income areas in the bill is in the revision of the foundation budget. The review commissions recommendations do include an enhanced recognition of the need for greater resources in low income schools.

      Also, as to charters, the bill increases local control by allowing district innovation schools to count against the cap. This applies in any area.

  15. I like you comment and concern about local communities being forced to pay for charter schools if they are providing the bulk of the resources for schools and managing to do a credible job of providing education. Local taxes without local control. I believe we started a revolution over this question. I think that the real question being danced around is should local communities provide schools or should the state create some other system for the provision of schools. It seems to me that the charter movement is actually a way to create change and chaos, but not end up in a better place as a society. For lucky few yes. And for communities that have corruption and resource issues, maybe. But perhaps the state would do better to run the schools, in these communities, rather than cause the current system to die from an ad hoc system of replacement. Charter Schools seem to me to be a way and opportunity for privatization and management companies to profit, not necessarily to improve the level of education for every child. After all most charter schools tend to expel children with challenging issues which the public schools are required to deal with.

  16. Thank you, Will, for clear explanation of the current debate and the bill.

    I appreciate your analysis of the differences in ability to pay on the part of different communities.

    I hope you get the opportunity to vote for the amendments you describe.

  17. I understand that the commitment to funding early childhood education( pre school) is very poor. We need to push for greater training for pre school educators, higher quality facilities, etc. Money spent on educating children in their earliest years has been shown to have more value then in later years. while the dialog about Charter vs. traditional schools must continue, we MUST INCREASE EFFORTS TO IMPROVE EARLY EDUCATION.

    1. Agreed-

      There is a direct connection between access to quality early education and success later in the academic career.

  18. But regulation in subjects taught, achievement goals, measures of achievement, etc must be clear. I don’t know what “simplify the compliance burdens on teachers..admins” means. If teachers in Charter Schools are not accountable, at least the achievements of the schools must be measured and analyzed. Wasn’t the idea to take new ideas, experiment, and then take them to the school department? What makes a parallel school system–funded by the taxpayer– to the public one good? Can’t the teachers union be an ally? There must be a way. I hope private charter schools are off the table at least. I don’t know much about the bill in question, but it seems that funding the schools and creating great programming as they are has been inadequate. Let’s fix the public schools.

  19. Charter school educators SHUOLD have state licenses required for other public school educators.

  20. Thanks for the careful analysis. I respectfully think you’re missing the boat on this. The point of charter schools is to offer parents a choice that is not hamstrung by lots of rules. Parents are already voting by vastly over-subscribing to charter schools. As you note, the additional costs, compliance requirements, and shortage of compliance consultants will reduce the growth of charter schools. It looks to me like we are choosing against the interests of students with the greatest need.

    I have a bit of personal knowledge that shapes my perspective. In the mid-1990s, I was asked to do the lottery for students who applied to a charter school in Boston. I was shown to a room with 485 applications. My job was to order them from 1 to 485, making sure to do it randomly. I spread them out over the large table in the room, shuffled them, reshuffled them several times in various ways, then picked them out of the pile randomly and numbered them in the order picked.

    After I numbered them, I read some. Most of them talked about how the student was doing poorly in the public schools, and this charter school was their last chance to escape the downward spiral. There was room for about 60 students in the class, and I felt great for the ones numberd 1 to 60. But my heart was breaking as I read some of the ones for kids numbered in the 100s, 200s, 300s, 400s. All the pleas for help on the applications, and there was nothing I or anyone else could do because of the charter school cap.

    What these new rules are basically saying to parents that the State knows better than they do. They want their kids to go to charter schools, but the State is putting obstacles in the way. My heart is breaking again.

  21. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Charter schools, at their best, can be a place for experimenting new pedagogies for the classroom. At their worst, they siphon money away from public schools, re-segregate school systems, adopt harsh disciplinary systems (which their backers would never accept for their own children), and weaken the public realm.

    The goal of any bill should be to maximize the ability to achieve the good and eliminate or lessen the possibilities of the bad. The regulations and restrictions on charters in the bill accomplish that end, as I see it. By ensuring that charter schools play by the same rules as public schools in terms of transparency, accountability, and labor standards, and by ensuring fair and humane disciplinary practices, the bill can ensure that lessons gained from charter schools can, in fact, be applicable to the system at large. An experiment needs constants for it to be a legitimate experiment.

    The disclosure of contracts is important to ensure that these organizations that receive large amounts of public money are spending that money wisely.

    Rather than limiting the debate to charters alone, the bill works to address the needs of public school students as well, and this is much to its credit.

    Allowing local control, moreover, is important because parents, teachers, and students will be those who know best what the needs of the schools are.

    Moreover, as we work to improve the education system, we must also remember that reducing inequities in education cannot be done successfully or sufficiently without reducing them in the economic realm as well. An anti-poverty agenda with a focus on robust social services is a key part of ensuring equal opportunity to all students.

  22. Thank you for a very thoughtful explanation of the issues.

    My gut response: poor legislation sets in place poor practices, so perhaps better to scratch all and start over?

  23. I was fortunate enough to be educated in the affluent south shore suburb of Milton.

    My father died suddenly, leaving my mother broke. I was 17 yo, but my younger sisters were about 10 and 13 when we moved to Dorchester.

    My mother and I had never seen or experienced such a mess of a public school system, and were frightened for our family.

    I don’t recall exactly how we did it with no money, but sisters attended private catholic schools, and I graduated from Cardinal Newman Prep in Back Bay Boston.

    Two of my sisters have taught in BPS and know very well of the challenges there. Both women used their own money to buy supplies for the neglected students.

  24. I do not care what regulations are used for charter schools. My tax dollars are for Public Education not private. If Parents want to send their children too charter schools then let them pay the tuition fees themselves. Charter Schools are for profit and selective in their chose of students. I do not want Under ANY
    circumstances to see my taxes Pay for Charter Schools

    1. Evelyn, all charter schools in Massachusetts are non-profit. I understand your perspective though, that as a Belmont resident, paying high taxes to live in a community with great schools, you would not want to see that diluted. That is why I will support the local control amendment.

  25. It sounds like a good compromise. I am concerned about the Public Schools losing money and the inequality of the public schools.

  26. Dear Senator Brownsberger,
    Thank you for your summary and thoughtful analysis of the Charter Reform Legislation.

    I must admit that I am a little bit confused by your comments about many of the compliance regulations related to Charter Schools.

    I am in agreement with you that, ideally, all schools would benefit from having to spend less of their time with compliance related reporting and activities. However, is it not the behavior of the Charter schools that is prompting the need for these new rules in the first place? After 22 years with almost no regulatory oversight there are still significant questions about which students charter schools actually serve, their student discipline policies, declining enrollment numbers through the higher grades, etc. The list of very real questions/concerns here is long. Would we need to be adding these additional regulations if charter schools were actually complying with the basic rules set down by the statute in exchange for receiving state and local education funds?
    You also reference the costs of complying with these rules as a barrier, but all Charter Schools across the state carry forward large annual operational surpluses known as Operational Gains every year. From FY11-14 alone, Charter Schools across the state reported that their current assets (cash holdings) grew by $76.7 million. During that same time, Charter School foundations saw their current assets (cash) grow by $27 million. Given those kinds of figures, I an certainly not buying the argument about financial hardship.
    Finally, charter schools were originally intended to be places of educational innovation. Their preferential treatment, both with regard to financing and limited oversight, was intended to be in exchange for new and innovative best practices that could be applied across the education sector. While I see charter schools using those preferences to benefit the 4% of students in the Commonwealth who are “charter material,” I have yet to see a report, committee or any other form of public policy showing how those innovations have benefitted the other 96% of students across our state.

  27. Please define ‘wealthy taxpayers’ who will be forced to pay more in taxes if the ballot question in 2018 is passed.

    Perhaps it would be much better for our children if the public schools were released from the so-called rules listed above. Or, even better, perhaps all public schools should become Charter schools giving our children greater opportunity for a good education.

  28. Dear Senator Brownsberger,

    It is easy to dislike this legislation, unless you are on the other side of the practices that it tries to address. If you’ve had a child in a charter school with 40% (with a historical high of 70%) out of school suspension rate in one year, then you probably know the emotional burden of trying to keep your kid enrolled in a school where at one time or another he or she will break one of the long list of rules. Yes, you will get that call, text or email saying your child is chewing gum or being chatty at lunch and if the child reacts badly, you will be leaving work early to pick him or her up from school. Imagine you are a low wage worker, working several shifts, and leaving early to pick up that child who was “play fighting.” You will have to choose between your child’s education and your job. More than likely you will not speak publicly about this experience, but just relay it to your closest friends, as you may feel that you or the child have done something wrong and are being kicked out of the educational promise land. You may even be counseled by your friends to “stick with it” even though the psychologist at Children’s Hospital tells you, after you have rushed your distressed child to the ER, that this may not be the best school for your child.

    These policies and practices have deep and lasting consequences. What you consider to be “undesirable complexity,” I consider to be humane reforms based on the many stories I’ve heard from fellow parents while my child was enrolled in a charter school.

    Thank you for working on behalf of our children.

  29. Once again, Massachusetts acts to reform education while ignoring the many(well over 100,000) students who are served by underfunded parochial schools. These schools typically spend far less than their local school districts per student, relying on tuition income that parents cannot afford and which does not come close to covering costs.

    Many may point to the state’s anti-aid amendment as a reason for this. This is a rather weak excuse. The origins of this amendment in the bigotry of a bygone era should give pause to all who seek to invoke it and stand in the way of its abrogation.

    At the same time, the state has done little to support non-public schools in areas like public safety, which are clear exemptions to the amendment. In NYC, the city council recently voted to fund security guards for non public schools, for example. NY state also provides textbooks(aid to students, not schools).

    When will Massachusetts emerge from this sad chapter of history and reclaim its legacy as the birthplace of the idea that a quality education is the birthright of every child?

  30. Unless the issue of financing is addressed, the impact on the public schools will continue to be devastating. In NH, the charters are funded out of a separate state budget line rather than drawing down resources from the public schools. Why can’t we do that as well?

    We need to rectify this or we will continue to see the public schools negatively impacted. Teachers are already having to pay for supplies for their classrooms due to the cuts in budgets.

    1. I would like to hear Representative Brownsberger respose to this insightful comment.

  31. I am not the best versed constituent as for as education obstacles in MA, but I have grown increasingly aware of the effect neoliberal policies have had on income inequality in this state. More charter schools definitely sounds like a neoliberal policy to shift the focus rather than tackle the problem.
    Personally, I don’t like this plan. I’m not entirely sure that such a change in education won’t put us into a sliding scale of increasingly capitalist values towards education for the priveledged.

  32. I agree, there are flaws in the bill. I worry that by moving the bill forward the conversation will not continue and the flaws will become laws. Similar to what has happened with Obamacare. The legislature in Washington said “We have to pass the bill so we will know what is in it.” Now many people are suffering with the consequences. Don’t let this happen to the children of Massachusetts. If the bill has too many flaws and loopholes then don’t vote for it. Go back and create a bill without so many flaws and potential problems. Don’t commit to something that is only half right just to say you did something. Do it right the first time and you won’t have any regrets. Please don’t hurt the children in this state who all deserve the chance to get a great education.

    1. Thanks, Pat,

      The intention of the Senate is to exactly as you suggest — to “do it right.” But that means different things to different people — I don’t get “do it right” by my own lights.

      Also, very important to understand: This is not the last touch on the bill. It will go to the House which can start over from scratch. Then there will be a conference committee which also has a lot of freedom to produce a different product.

      The final bill will look radically different from this bill and I’ll make a final decision then.

  33. Charter Schools are not effective in closing the education gap, in reality it only futher divides limited funds and continues to damage our public education system. I’m ocncerned that Brownsberger, has reservations about the bill, but will vote for it, “just to further the conversation.” This is lazy politics as best, and a detached politican at worst.

    1. Ouch. Actually, it’s responsible politics. The thing to remember is that I am one of 40 senators and I don’t get to call the tune. As a legislator, one has to make an up or down decisions about whether to accept packages which are almost never entirely to one’s liking. Making a practice of always voting against the imperfect would not be responsible politics.

      1. You may be one of 40 senators, but you are my representative. I would hope that my representative would not call an act of legislation that will defund public schools and have negative implications for the education of our children as “responsible politics.” I would hope that my representative would make a stand on our childrens behalf for each and every bill that is “imperfect.” With your vote on this bill you are sending a clear message, and I will do the same with the next elections by not voting for your re-election.

        1. Please consider the possibility that you might be misreading the bill: It does not “defund” public schools. On the contrary, it proposes to dedicate hundreds of millions of additional dollars to district schools by implementing the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission and limits charter expansion to the extent we fail to deliver on that commitment. Many local district school superintendents are supporting the bill.

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