Go back to the Governor's bill

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The Senate is going to be debating a bill that on the face of it lifts the charter school cap. But it is deeply flawed. Some of it goes back to the Governor’s first proposal on charters in February 2009. With the Race to the Top fund in the balance, he showed leadership in changing his view in July, when he issued a proposal that maximizes the possibility of receiving federal funds and (1) doubles the number of kids in charters, (2) leaves the rest of the existing in tact, with a framework to ensure that charter operators redouble their efforts to enroll special needs and English language learners.

The Senate Ways & Means bill under consideration is deeply flawed. It undermines several key drivers of the Massachusetts charter school model, which has proven very successful.

(1) It seems that for-profit charter operators are prohibited. Also, charters that have proprietary curricula will not be able to charge if a district seeks to “replicate” of any part of that curriculum. Question: What about the SABIS school in Springfield? It is one of the top urban high schools in the nation? Are we really saying we don’t want more SABIS schools? That’s not a smart provision.

(2) The lottery system for student admissions is changed. The bill goes beyond defining what is a good marketing effort for special needs and English language learners. It establishes, in effect, quotas for these select groups. That is not fair, because charters serve a much higher number of African-American and Hispanic students (50 to 22%) and low-income students (44 to 30%) than district schools. Question: Do other states do this? Answer: Not that I know of.

(3) The bill changes the charters’ accountability around academic excellence. Charters create a culture of learning and goals based on excellence. But by requiring that charter schools backfill any open seat created by a student transferring out of the charter, they put at risk the mission. Take an 11th-grader who joined the charter school in the 9th grade. The child starts a couple of years behind, but catches up with the additional attention and the school’s culture of learning. By the 11th grade, the child is at grade level or better, and he has passed the MCAS. Still he may feel like transferring back to the district if he falls behind in class and senses that he may be held back and required to repeat the year at the charter. In that case, he might transfer back to the district school knowing that the district schools will socially promote him.

Question: Should charters have to take an 11th grader on its waiting list to make up for that student? That’s what the bill calls for. But it is a mistake because any non-charter child transferring in will likely not be prepared for 11th-grade AP classes. Rather than this, the Senate should either leave the current system in place or require that charters take students in their “entry year” of operation; e.g., for a high school, it would be 9th grade.

Question: Why not simply require that districts set a date-certain for any returns from charter schools and abide by charter school decisions on whether a student should fail not. That would take away the temptation of giving up on academic excellence in a charter, for the students mainly attrite from charters to districts because they know the district schools will socially promote them.

(4) Equitable funding. The bill would put 20% of charter funding in a separate line item subject to annual appropriation. Given the next two years, that’s like telling charters that cuts are imminent. Such an outcome would set us back to pre-1993 Education Reform Act days.

My takeaway? Go back to the Governor’s proposal.