Massachusetts Voters to Decide on Whether to Lift Charter School Cap

Published August 18, 2016

Massachusetts voters will decide whether to lift the state’s cap on charter schools when they go to the polls in November.

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated schools. Current law in Massachusetts caps the number of charter schools at 120. Boston Globe columnist Scot Leigh reported a study released in 2015 found “Boston charter students are achieving four times the growth in reading and six times the growth in math over the course of a school year” compared to traditional public schools.

The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports 32,646 Massachusetts students are currently on charter school waitlists. Approximately 40,000 students were enrolled in charter schools in 2015.  

A ballot committee collected tens of thousands of signatures in favor of the petition to increase the charter school cap, titled “An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools.” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) certified the petition as constitutional in July, enabling a question to appear on the ballot this fall asking, “Should the state lift the cap on the number of charter school seats it permits to allow 12 new or expanded charters a year?”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has expressed his support for lifting the charter school cap.

Teachers unions in the state have been the top contributors to the anti-charter Campaign to Save Our Public Schools, an organization the Boston Globe reports spent more than $800,000 on an August television campaign opposing the ballot question.

School Choice ‘Game-Changer’

Aaron Garth Smith, an education policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, says the push to expand school choice in Massachusetts shows parents value choice.

“It says a lot about the state of public schooling, particularly in large, urban districts, when one of the highest-performing states in the country is failing to provide low-income students with equitable opportunities,” Smith said. “Research has clearly proven that school choice is a game-changer for families, yet the status quo doesn’t want to cease control.

“Opponents argue that expanding charters will ‘drain’ money from district schools, but this ignores the other side of the ledger,” Smith said. “Although districts might lose operating revenue, they also lose the expense of educating kids that choose charters. What they’re really saying is that they don’t want to make the tough decisions that accompany enrollment declines. And instead of actually improving to meet the needs of families, they try to limit their options.”

Charter Pros and Cons

Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions, says studies show charter schools consistently perform better than traditional public schools.

“Every policy is a failure when judged against the standard of perfection,” Wolf said. “We only should judge charter schooling against the standard of the alternative of residentially assigned traditional public schools. Over the past three years, rigorous comparisons between the test-score outcomes of charter students and comparable [traditional public school] students have consistently shown an advantage for charters.”

Wolf says the charter test score advantage has been particularly high for low-income students, minority students, and those in Massachusetts public charter schools.

Smith says people tend to think about charters as either “good” or “bad,” but “as with many things in life, charters vary in quality.”

Smith says what matters most is giving parents the power to choose how their children are educated.

“At the end of the day, the primary question is whom do we want to empower to make decisions: parents and educators, or special interests and technocrats?” Smith said. “I have more faith in the people who are actually familiar with the needs of individual kids and communities. The most significant advantage of charters is that they put parents in the driver’s seat in holding schools accountable for performance, which ultimately incentivizes quality.”

Caps ‘Purely Political’

Smith says those in favor of capping charter schools disregard families’ wants and needs.   

“Caps are purely political and only serve to limit the supply of options for families,” Smith said. “How else can you explain it when 34,000 students are on waitlists in Massachusetts alone? The only way to satisfy the diverse needs of kids is to allow a diverse supply of options to flourish, and making charters more like district schools via regulations is directly at odds with this objective.”

Wolf says caps on charter schools “limit the educational options available to parents.”

“It’s like putting a cap on the number of restaurants permitted in a city where families like to eat out on Sunday nights,” Wolf said. “Many of those families won’t have the choice of eating out because no tables will be available to accommodate them.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute.