How big of a deal was the 2010 ed reform law?

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Back in January 2010, there was a lot of hoopla around the passage and signing of the new Achievement Gap law. At the time:

“We are standing up for children,’’ Patrick said before an upbeat gathering of educators…

And Education Secretary Paul Reville released this statement:

Last week, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Governor Deval Patrick signed historic education reform legislation which will forever alter the landscape of public education in Massachusetts. The most significant piece of education reform legislation since the 1993 Education Reform Act, the Achievement Gap bill signals the beginning of a new chapter in education reform.

With hindsight (and time to unpack the law’s provisions), the answer is that the achievement gap law was a pretty big deal, but with so many strings attached that it may turn out to be a lot less than the hoopla suggested. It certainly lacked the breadth, scope and depth of the 1993 Education Reform Act, simply because it was focused almost solely on the achievement gap. But how does the 2010 reform compare with the 1998 charter cap lift?

That 1998 legislation increased the cap on charter schools without adding any bureaucratic strings or hurdles. It also created a new set of unionized charter schools, as many union leaders noted that they, too, could create high-performing schools with greater levels of flexibility. The resulting “Horace Mann charter schools” could be created if they received collective bargaining and school committee approval. And there were examples of really successful reforms stemming from the Horace Mann charters, such as the decentralization of the Barnstable school system.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere questions on one of the provisions which gives strong preference to “proven providers”. As a new study notes,

The Board may give priority to applicants that have demonstrated broad community support, an innovative educational plan, a demonstrated commitment to assisting the district in which it is located in bringing about educational change and a record of operating at least 1 school or similar program that demonstrates academic success and organizational viability and serves student populations similar to those the proposed school seeks to serve.

This “proven provider” language applies in those larger districts which have long waiting lists and are already on the verge of spending 9 percent of a school district’s net spending (state and local) on charter schools. In those districts, the Board can only approve “proven providers.”

There are all kinds of issues here, many of which I raised previously, such as—what if a charter is proven for a certain set of students (minorities) but not for others (English language learners)? What happens if the provider has several schools that are “proven” but one in its school network is not working out well?

Then there are strings related to student recruitment. The bill started out, in the Governor’s version, with quotas for English Language Learners and for special needs students. On the first day in the Senate, some suggested that my organization (Pioneer Institute) “blew up the deal” that was on the table. That deal would have increased the charter school cap in some urban areas, but would also have allowed quotas to be imposed on student categories. So I remember what some of the bad options were.

The legislative sausage-making ended with something weaker than quotas. Instead, there are directives on student recruitment and retention that are activity-based. You need to have a plan that does X, Y, and Z. For organizations like charters, the whole idea of which is premised on flexibility in exchange for results, this is a counterintuitive and bureaucratic imposition. That may be how district schools and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education think—compliance. It’s not how charters excel.

But it is par for the course in terms of how this legislation works. It is lots of imposition and prescription from the legislature and the Department of Ed—and it stands in stark contrast to previous legislative treatments of charters.

Then there is new language

[W]hen a student leaves a charter school before February 15 of a given school year, that school must aim to fill the vacancy by offering it to the next available student on the waitlist in that grade. Charter schools are prohibited from “backfilling,” or filling a vacant seat by offering it to a student in a lower grade, although charters need not fill a vacant spot in the three highest grades of a school or in grades 10, 11, and 12 at the high school level.

This prescriptive language limits charter autonomy. It also opens up a space for increased bureaucratic monitoring of charter schools; arguably, some agency will have to oversee the process of filling charter school vacancies.

This is a reaction from a successful charter school founder to the new language:

Then there is the fact that the legislation is schizophrenic on Horace Mann charter schools:

In keeping with the original purpose of Horace Mann charter schools, the current legislation provides “Horace Mann charter schools shall not be subject to the requirement of an agreement with the local collective bargaining unit prior to Board approval,” which means, essentially, that Horace Mann schools do not need union approval to be established.

The problem is that the law states that these schools, which now don’t need school committee and collective bargaining approval at the time of their authorization, will need at the time of the reauthorization both school committee and collective bargaining approval. The legislation states:

a charter for a Horace Mann charter school shall not be renewed by the Board without a majority vote of the school committee and local collective bargaining unit in the district where said charter school is located.

So you free a school from district and union constraints, but then insist that they be subject to those constraints. Going forward, all existing Horace Mann charters will have to face the same obstacle course at the time of their re-authorization.

In short, the 2010 education has lifted one of the caps on charters in specified urban districts but has reduced the flexibility of charters overall, and creates a tortured mess around the class of Horace Mann charter schools. My take is, yup, glad it went forward, but, in terms of the quality and reach of the reform, it comes well behind the 1993 Ed reform Law and does not measure up to the 1998 reform that lifted charter school caps and created unionized Horace Mann charter schools.