Governor Seeks to Loosen Limits on Massachusetts Charter Schools

Published October 16, 2009

Massachusetts education reformers are hoping federal incentive funds will move state lawmakers to remove limits on charter schools, but they are prepared to take their case to the ballot box if necessary.

The Democrat-majority state legislature is considering a more modest pro-charter proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick (D). Patrick’s plan would raise one of the state’s caps on charter school growth by doubling the share of districts’ net state spending that could go to charters, from 9 percent to 18 percent.

“The 9 percent cap is a problem in urban areas where there are a lot of charters” serving poorer families in racial minority communities, said Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA).

Racing Ahead

Patrick announced his plan to lift the cap during a July visit from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to help improve the state’s chances at receiving federal Race to the Top funding.

“The Race to the Top criteria specifically say states need to look at all caps on charters and equitable funding for charters,” Slowey said. “These are the two things we’re missing right now.”

Massachusetts’ 64 charter schools serve about 25,000 students, with nearly as many on waiting lists to get in. Other state caps limit the number of independent “commonwealth charters” to 75, and union-friendly “Horace Mann charters” to 48. The Bay State currently has 57 “commonwealth” and only seven “Horace Mann” charters.

Although it addresses only one of Massachusetts’ statutory limits on charter school growth, some charter proponents are pleased with the governor’s proposal.

“We recognize there are stages of progress, and we certainly applauded the governor for what is a 100 percent relaxing of one cap in terms of growth,” said Jim Rooney, director of public affairs for the Boston Foundation, a nonprofit community grant-making organization that advocates for education reform. “It was a courageous step for him.”

Reaching Citizens

A groundbreaking January report published by the Foundation demonstrated greater academic gains among similar students attending Boston charter schools over their peers in the city’s other public schools. Patrick cited new research on charter school effectiveness in support of changing his position to favor removing caps.

“We took some solace in the fact that our report helped to contribute to that new wealth of data,” Rooney said.

Some charter supporters plan to take their persuasive message directly to the citizens of the state. A May 2006 poll found 68 percent in favor of charter schools. But Slowey said many misconceptions about the schools’ funding and demographics still need to be overcome. Along with a group of business and community leaders, MCPSA currently is circulating a ballot initiative that would remove all the state’s existing charter school caps. It may withdraw the petition, depending on what sort of plan the legislature ultimately adopts.

But in order to be eligible to place the measure on the 2010 ballot for Massachusetts voters, MCPSA first had to meet a mid-December deadline to submit signatures to the secretary of state.

“For us, the timing didn’t work out to wait to see what [the legislature] will do,” said Slowey.

Promoting Equity

Massachusetts lawmakers are working quickly to craft a reform package in advance of a December 1 deadline to apply for a share of the nearly $5 billion in Race to the Top money. At a full-day hearing on September 17, the state’s joint education committee expressed an interest in considering not only Patrick’s proposals but also charter funding formulas. Charter schools receive 75 percent of the operating funding allocated to traditional public schools, and little or no money for facilities. Supporters expressed concerns the legislature might expand the gap further.

“If they change the formula to something less equitable as a tradeoff to lift the caps, we believe it could jeopardize the state’s ability to get access to [Race to the Top] funds,” Slowey said.

Debating Finances

However, charter opponents claim districts will suffer money losses.

“We believe there should be a separate stream of money supporting these schools, because our systems aren’t able to recoup financial damage when kids leave,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Slowey dismissed the claim, pointing out districts losing students to charter schools already benefit from a three-year payback—”the most generous reimbursement formula in the country,” he said.

Rooney also noted the governor’s cap-raising proposal has been rated cost-neutral for the first two fiscal years and a minimal expense for the three subsequent years. He believes the finding helps overcome objections based on current recessionary effects on state revenues.

“Even in this climate, we would suggest this proposal is very manageable,” said Rooney.

Building the Portfolio

The superintendents oppose raising the charter school cap, instead favoring Patrick’s plan for more “readiness schools,” which preserves district oversight while providing more site-based management by teachers and parent committees. Slowey says that’s too narrow a view.

“We support a whole portfolio of alternative schools that would give parents more choice,” he explained. “We would oppose a viewpoint that says readiness schools should replace charter schools. We think they should be complementary.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.