Improving the Charter School Authorization Process

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Event to feature noted education reformer Dr. Howard Fuller, Edward Cremata of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes

Massachusetts should abolish charter public school caps, create a more autonomous Charter School Office and explore the creation of additional charter authorizers, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Looking Back to Move Forward: Charter School Authorizing in Massachusetts

“Charter schools have been a success story in Massachusetts,” said Cara Stillings Candal, author of Looking Back to Move Forward: Charter School Authorizing in Massachusetts, “but the charter authorizing process has become more politicized and is being used to subject charters to the same kind of regulation as traditional schools.”

Charter schools were established as part of Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act as public schools of choice that would be free of many of the state’s and school districts’ bureaucratic constraints.

After two decades, Candal argues that Massachusetts has a good sense of which charter schools will succeed and arbitrary caps serve no purpose. She uses the example of Edward Brooke, a highly successful network of three schools. Their application for a fourth school was rejected largely because there just wasn’t enough room under the existing cap.

Candal finds that giving the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Charter School Office (CSO) the kind of autonomy it once had would allow the experts to make decisions about charter authorization.

It would also help to prevent situations like one that occurred in 2009, when state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester recommended that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approve a Gloucester charter school despite a CSO finding that the school didn’t meet the commonwealth’s criteria. The Gloucester Community Arts Charter School has subsequently closed.

Multiple charter authorizers might also limit politicization and reduce the burden on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which forwards its findings to the BESE. The board is currently the only charter authorizer in Massachusetts.

Some charter advocates believe the BESE has a bias against schools that would be managed by a for-profit management company. They point to the board’s 2008 decision not to authorize a school recommended for approval by the commissioner and the CSO. Then BESE-chair Paul Reville (who went on to serve as state secretary of education) relied on an outdated DESE document to convince the board to reject the application of a Brockton-area school that would have been managed by SABIS, a for-profit management company that operates two successful Massachusetts charter schools.

Candal points out that multiple charter authorizers might also encourage innovation after a 2010 law that requires new charters in low-performing Massachusetts school districts be operated by ‘proven providers” with an established record of success. She recommends eliminating the proven-provider requirement, which would likely encourage innovation and increase the number of high-quality charter schools. Over time, the proven provider requirement could result in a group of schools that are similar in terms of educational mission and even programming.

Schools are chartered for five years and the current renewal process is similar to the painstaking initial authorization process. Since the commonwealth is already familiar with proven providers, Candal proposes a separate renewal process for them that is more streamlined than the initial authorization.

The release of Looking Back to Move Forward will be marked with an event on Tuesday, June 4th at 8:00 a.m. at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston. It will feature presentations from Dr. Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, and Edward Cremata, research associate at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education outcomes. A CREDO study published earlier this year found that Boston charter schools are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country.

The event, Pioneer’s fourth charter school event of 2012-13, will also feature a diverse panel that will include a former Florida and Virginia state education official, a current Massachusetts school superintendent and the executive director of the American Federation of Teachers’ Shanker Institute.

Cara Stillings Candal is director of research and curriculum at the Center for Better Schools/National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education and Senior Fellow at Pioneer Institute. She is the author of numerous articles on the charter school movement, both nationally and in Massachusetts. For Pioneer, she has authored the following publications related to charter schools: Preserving Charter School Autonomy, Charter School Caps and Strings Attached, Putting Children First: The History of Charter Public Schools in Massachusetts, and Debunking the Myths About Charter Public Schools.


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.