Massachusetts Works to Expand Charter Schools

On November 18 the Massachusetts State Senate passed a much-anticipated bill to expand charter schools.

The bill, S. 2216, sent to the House in the late hours of November 17, lifted the many caps hindering charter school expansion in the Bay State.

Essentially, Massachusetts has two types of charter schools: Commonwealth schools are public schools with fewer regulations, which have been capped at 72 statewide. Horace Mann charter schools are also public schools, but are regulated in much the same way as government-run public schools with unionized teaching staffs—capped at 48 statewide.

S. 2216 would allow unlimited numbers of both types of charters. In addition to raising charter limits, the bill also doubles the amount of money each district can spend on charter schools, from 9 percent of its net school spending to 18 percent.

“There are a lot of urban districts that are right at 9 percent of net school spending,” explained Dominic Slowey, the spokesman of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, an advocacy group based in Boston. “This will open room for districts that are currently frozen.”

Seeking Reform

S. 2216 was initially authored by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in the form of two bills, H. 4163 and H .4164. H. 4163 was intended to expand the number of charter schools, and H. 4164 was to establish a process for turning around the state’s worst-performing public schools. In order to compete for $250 million in federal Race to the Top grant money—a competition now approaching its January 19, 2010 proposal deadline—the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Education combined the two bills into one (S. 2205).

“We bulked them up, we strengthened them, we sought more reform,” said state Sen. Robert O’Leary (D-Cape and Islands). Patrick also sent a letter to state senators urging them to pass this bill.

However, S. 2205 passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee on November 10 with amendments that could harm its original intent. These include establishing a separate and unequal funding formula for charter schools, restricting their growth by allowing only proven charter school operators to apply to operate new schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts, and requiring that charter school enrollment match the racial demographics of neighboring district schools before their charters can be renewed.

Unions Join Fray

An outcry from many reform organizations and charter school supporters convinced the Senate to eliminate the detrimental changes to the funding formula, but other damaging provisions remained. Charter supporters are now focusing their efforts on pressing the House to consider amending these aspects of the bill before it lands on the governor’s desk.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) is not sitting on the sidelines as S. 2216 proceeds from the Senate to the House. Though there is no date set for House debate, the MTA is already pushing to keep amendments adopted in the Senate related to limiting charter school expansion and increasing union control through bargaining time.

Mayor Lends Support

The teachers union’s fight against charter growth is not new, but finding itself on the opposite side of the issue with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (D) is. The mayor has opposed charter schools for the last 20 years, but in light of the failure of public schools, union opposition to reforms, and President Barack Obama’s endorsement of charter schools, he has changed his tune.

“I believe that the increased flexibility that charters provide can … help us close the achievement gap,” Menino told The Wall Street Journal this summer.

Action on S. 2216 in the Massachusetts House of Representatives is expected to come in early January.

Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is the education policy analyst at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank in Sacramento, California.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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