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.

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