Not grateful for “charter school cap lift”

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The 2010 Achievement Gap bill that was passed by both the House and the Senate and signed into law by Governor Patrick lifted the limits on charter schools and the number of students in them in districts that were failing to see improvements in student achievement.  Rather than limiting the number of students to 9% in these largely urban districts, the law allowed up to 18% of students to attend charter schools.

The six-year period for the expansion up to 18 percent of students was not coincidental.  It aligns with the six-year reimbursement schedule for districts, by which districts:

  • receive 100% of the per-pupil funding for in the first year after a student leaves for a public charter;
  • continues to be reimbursed for the “phantom” student in years 2 through 6 at 25% of the student’s per-pupil funding.


That’s a lot of extra state funding, which is in part why many parents and district educators in Lowell feared negative impacts from the closure of a charter school in the city a couple of years back.

So, what to make of today’s front page Globe story ballyhooing the state’s decision to release 1,000 charter seats in Boston and 360 in Lawrence as a “charter school cap lift?

Is that good news and something to be pleased about?  Yes, on the practical impact, but not so much on the politics and policy of the decision.

On the practical impact, there is plenty of evidence of the strength of Massachusetts’ public charter schools, and even greater evidence of the strength of public charters in Boston.  Massachusetts’ and Boston’s charters are in fact pretty unique in the level of consistency they have, which is testimony to the good vetting process in place for many years (something that needs closer scrutiny given reason to believe that political considerations have played a fairly significant role in charter approvals and rejections in Gloucester and Brockton).

So applaud the practical impact, with proven schools likely to expand in Boston and also in Lawrence.

On the politics, I can’t say that the release of the seats was a story for any reason except that the Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester complied with the 2010 law.  I am not grateful for that.  He is expected to do that – it’s called the public trust.

The fact that he held up seats in the initial expansion was altogether understandable – but when the Department would make those seats available should never have been in question.  It’s the law, and the fact is that the commissioner should have given a time certain for the release of the additional seats from the beginning.

Policy-wise, there is not much here.  Lawrence has some of the worst-performing schools in the state—low student achievement in math, English, and science; scores that are not moving to anywhere close to acceptable levels; it has 30+% dropout rates.  We know that’s not sustainable – and those facts affect most people and make them want to take real action, not just temporize and avoid responsibility. But even from a purely financial perspective, the right policy is to take actions that have been proven successful.  As Mark Vogler of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune recently reported:

Lawrence Public Schools’ annual payroll will go over $100 million for the first time in the city’s history in fiscal 2013.A $4.8 million hike in overall salaries for the city’s 2,000 School Department employees — due to step increases negotiated before the state placed the district in receivership — accounts for more than half of the $8.3 million increase in the proposed education budget for the 2013 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Nearly that entire eye-popping amount is paid for by the state.  In addition, the state Board of Education stripped the local school committee of most of its powers and put the district in receivership, naming former Boston Public Schools official Jeffrey C. Riley Superintendent/Receiver.  We own the problems of the Lawrence public school district.

Lawrence has some great charter schools, including the Lawrence Family Development Charter School and the Lawrence Community Day School.  Given that, why are we just expanding 360 seats when there are 13,000 kids in the district?

Lawrence is Massachusetts’ “Katrina moment.”  Let me put it another way to Massachusetts’ education officials: How would you respond to this crisis if your kids were in the Lawrence district schools?

They would respond just as the country did after Katrina, insisting on a new path for New Orleans schools – and one that has served the kids well, giving parents real choices and expanding charters to encompass nearly all the schools in the city.  So here’s the question I asked a couple of weeks ago – and it’s a good one:

Lawrence has very good charter schools and could line up more charter operators very quickly. It also has the advantage of an existing network of high-quality parochial schools that could play a key role in changing the prospects of kids — not after the successful execution of a five- or ten-year improvement plan but immediately.Do we really have to wait for an act of god before we act?

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