Room to Grow: Study Identifies Opportunity for New Charter Schools in State’s Gateway Cities

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BOSTON – With a disproportionate number of communities that both have room for more charter public schools under state caps and would benefit from them due to low-performing district public schools, the Commonwealth’s 26 Gateway Cities represent a strong opportunity for the establishment of new charters and/or expansion of existing schools, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

The state legislature defines Gateway Cities as “mid-sized urban centers that anchor regional economies around the state.”

“Turning this opportunity to benefit some of the neediest students and families in Massachusetts into reality would be helped by reforms to the charter school authorization process that would give parents more say and limit the impact of well-funded interest groups,” says Dr. Cara Candal, author of “Room to Grow: The Politics and Promise of Charter Schools in Massachusetts Gateway Cities.”

Fall River, New Bedford, and Worcester all have room under state caps that limit the number of students who can attend charter schools. Fall River and New Bedford also have large wait lists. Worcester and Brockton have smaller wait lists. Demand there might be satisfied by the addition of one new charter in each city. Springfield, Lynn, and Lawrence also have large wait lists, but have little or no room under the caps. Most of these Gateway City school districts perform in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

Despite consistently outperforming their district counterparts in Gateway Cities, overcoming well-financed opposition to charter schools has proven difficult. In 2019, for example, state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley proposed allowing New Bedford’s Alma del Mar charter school to access empty school district facilities in its bid to expand—in return for agreeing to draw students from some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

At the Hayden McFadden School, for example, 19 percent of third graders met or exceeded expectations on the MCAS English test and just 9 percent did so in math. The corresponding numbers at Alma del Mar were 90 percent in English and 74 percent in math. Despite this, the plan was scuttled. Although Alma del Mar was allowed to expand, it wasn’t done in a way that would have maximized the benefits for New Bedford students and families.

Strong charter school applications were also put forward in Brockton in 2008 and 2013. Despite Brockton having plenty of room under the caps, the proposals went down amid strong opposition from Brockton school administrators and teachers’ unions.

“It’s hard to have these policy debates when people are attacked for stepping into the public sphere,” said former Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert. As high-quality charter school applications were blocked by powerful anti-charter advocates, the voices of parents were rarely heard.

Dr. Candal makes several recommendations:

  • Create another charter authorizing body in addition to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Unlike the DESE, such an authorizer—which could be a university or independent charter school board—wouldn’t also serve other education stakeholders and would therefore be able to pay less attention to politics and more to promoting quality applications.
  • Give substantial weight to charter waiting lists and other indicators of parent demand in the charter school application process.
  • Contract with a neutral outside entity to assess claims that charters do financial harm to the district schools from which their students come.