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Preserving Charter School Autonomy in Massachusetts

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Study Calls For Lifting Statewide Charter Public School Cap, Re-Establishing Independent State Charter School Office

Charters should also gain access to unused district school buildings, more equitable financing for facilities and relief from state laws that add to construction costs

Re-establishing a state Charter School Office (CSO) that is appropriately funded and independent from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), raising the statewide cap on charter public schools and providing charters with the support they need to face the myriad challenges associated with starting and running a school are some of the recommendations of a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Preserving Charter School Autonomy

Policies the Commonwealth can create to better support charter public schools include: giving them access to low-interest loans or other mechanisms to help with facilities financing, making construction more affordable by exempting charters from Massachusetts’ prevailing wage law, and providing districts incentives to offer unused school buildings to charter schools at a reasonable price, according to Pioneer Institute Senior fellow Dr. Cara Candal, author of “Preserving Charter School Autonomy.”

“The Massachusetts School Building Authority pays between 40 and 80 percent of the cost of district school construction,” said Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer’s Center for School Reform.  “Charter schools get only an annual per-pupil ‘facilities tuition’ that is far less generous and hasn’t risen since 2009.”

During the 1990s, Massachusetts’ CSO was an independent entity within the education secretariat.  But when that iteration of the secretariat was eliminated, the office became part of the DESE.

Today, turnover is high and the office is shrinking, even as it works on authorization and oversight of far more schools than in earlier years.  The CSO doesn’t even have its own budget; it’s funded out of an administrative operating line in the DESE budget.

Dr. Candal envisions an independent, adequately funded CSO that would provide autonomous charter authorization advice to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, ensure charter compliance with applicable state regulations, enforce accountability, pursue school closures when necessary and act as a one-stop technical support shop for charter school operators.

Nearly 20 new charter schools have opened in Massachusetts since a 2010 law doubled the amount of seats in the Commonwealth’s worst-performing districts, but during that time charter school waitlists have nearly doubled to almost 45,000 students statewide.  More charters are clearly needed to meet the growing demand.

On average, Massachusetts charter schools dramatically outperform the school districts from which their students come.  Dr. Candal finds that autonomy is a key to their success.  She notes that Horace Mann charter schools, which were created in 1997, have not been nearly as academically successful or popular as the more autonomous commonwealth charter schools.  Between 2004 and 2006, there was not a single application to open a new Horace Mann charter.

Dr. Candal applauds a provision in the 2010 legislation eliminating the requirement that new Horace Mann charters be approved by the local school committee and teachers union.  But she calls for eliminating the seemingly contradictory requirement that those entities approve reauthorization of Horace Mann charter schools.

The 2010 law also imposed a number of bureaucratic restraints on commonwealth charter schools.  While the new restraints, such as mandating dates by which student vacancies must be filled at charter schools, are popular with district school administrators, there is no sense of what they are meant to accomplish other than forcing charters to behave more like traditional schools.  Dr. Candal notes the irony of imposing needless bureaucratic requirements on schools that were designed to be free of the very constraints that hamper traditional public schools.

Pioneer will hold a forum, “Charter Public Schools: Preserving Quality, Autonomy, and Choice,” on Thursday, February 21 at 8:00 a.m. at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston. Panelists will include: Massachusetts Teachers Association President, Paul Toner; Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation; City on a Hill Public Charter High School Executive Director Erica Brown; and Dr. Candal. Morton Orlov II, President, MassInsight Mass Math + Science Initiative and former principal of Chelsea High School will moderate the panel discussion. The event will include introductory remarks by former Florida Commissioner of Education Gerard Robinson and keynote remarks from Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The event is co-sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, SABIS, the Program on Education Policy & Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

For nearly two decades, Pioneer has been a leading advocate for school choice and charter public schools. Last year, Pioneer held forums highlighting school choice and the benefits charters can bring to cities such as Brockton, Springfield, and Lawrence. Pioneer commissioned national pollster David Paleologos to conduct a public opinion survey of 500 likely Massachusetts voters; results showed that over two-thirds of respondents support lifting charter school caps.

Pioneer staff members have appeared on radio and in print urging state education leaders and lawmakers to eliminate restrictions on the number of students who can attend charter schools, and to expand school choice options in and beyond Boston.  Recent press coverage includes: “Chieppo and Gass: More charter schools to close the education gap” MetroWest Daily News (February 10, 2013); “GUEST OPINION: Lift Massachusetts’ cap on charter schools,” Taunton Daily Gazette (February 9, 2013); “Give proven providers a fair shot,” Boston Herald (October 16, 2012).

Media appearances focused on the Lawrence school district include: “The ‘Post-Katrina’ Moment for Lawrence Schools,” The Callie Crossley Show, WGBH (September 12, 2012); “Lawrence school reforms must target all students, not a select fewLawrence Eagle-Tribune (August 26, 2012); “College hopes renewed for Lawrence dropoutsLawrence Eagle-Tribune (August 9, 2012); “Receiver: Individual schools to lead way in Lawrence turnaround,” Lawrence Eagle-Tribune (August 1, 2012).

Over the past few years, the Institute has released the following reports on Massachusetts charters: Houses of Learning: The Charter Public School Facilities Process (June 2011); Charter School Caps and Strings Attached: The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 and Charter Policy (October 2010); Debunking the Myths about Charter Public Schools (January 2010); Putting Children First: The History of Charter Public Schools in Massachusetts (November 2009); and  Follow the Money: Charter School and District Funding in Massachusetts (November 2009).

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Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.