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.
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.
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