WILL THURSDAY MARK the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of the charter school debate on Beacon Hill?

That’s the question as the Senate prepares to take up a measure that satisfies neither charter proponents nor opponents. Some have pronounced the unpopular Senate proposal a nonstarter, and concluded that the charter question will be fought out via a November ballot question.

It may well come to that. But it’s worth asking whether the state’s political leaders can rise to the challenge of sorting through a thorny issue and reaching a satisfactory political resolution.

If they can’t, it would be a sign of just how polarized the education debate in Massachusetts has become. It would also mark the first time in the 23 years since the state’s landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 that the next iteration of school reform couldn’t be worked out through the deliberative process.

Two years ago, the House approved a bill to increase the cap on charter schools in low-performing school districts, but it died in the Senate. Frustrated charter advocates, who say 34,000 students on wait lists are being denied a chance to attend a charter school, have now taken matters in their own hands: They are gearing up to place a question on the November ballot that would allow up to 12 additional or expanded charter schools each year.

It would be a costly and contentious ballot fight, and the outcome is far from certain. Yet both sides seem dug in, more interested in duking it out than talking it over.

If there’s a way out of the ballot fight, it starts with the Senate, since it is the reluctant Beacon Hill player. The House and Gov. Charlie Baker are both ready to embrace an increase in the charter school cap.

Last week, a group of four senators unveiled legislation that would gradually raise the cap on charters, while also putting new rules in place on their governance structure and enrollment and retention practices. The plan also ties increases in the charter-school cap to additional funding each year for all schools in the state.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, says the bill meets the “moral standard” she has tried to follow of equally supporting families in her Boston district with children in both district and charter schools.

“It addresses a lot of the issues we have raised,” says Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

But a loud chorus of critics has said it fails on multiple fronts. The bill would place lots of new restrictions on charters, including requiring that they maintain retention rates equal to the local district, and that their boards of trustees include a member of the local district school committee.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a statement, said the bill “offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools.”

A coalition of pro-charter Boston community groups denounced the bill, saying the Senate measure would be “worse than if they had taken no action at all.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it favors new rules for charters but opposes any bill that would allow for more charters, which are publicly funded, but operated independent of districts, usually with non-unionized teachers.

Some measures in the bill, such as new transparency requirements on finances and contracting, represent healthy new accountability bringing charters in line with district public schools. A provision that would automatically enter all students in local charter lotteries, with an opt-out option if they are awarded a seat, is similar to proposal Boston is considering to create a more user-friendly, “unified” enrollment system for district and charter schools.

But other provisions seem overly prescriptive and compliance-driven. In the name of of promoting collaboration between district and charter schools, the bill would require a charter applicant to hold a meeting with the local district superintendent.

What’s even more troubling to charter advocates, along with calling for a much more gradual increase in the charter cap than the House bill passed two years ago, the Senate bill includes some elements they see as “poison pills.”

Among them is a provision that would let communities effectively block new charter schools in a community by allowing them to count seats at in-district “innovation” schools and in-district charter schools in the calculation used to determine when the local cap on charters has been reached.

Under that formula, say charter advocates, Boston would already be at the cap for adding new independently-run charters if its innovation and in-district charter schools are counted.

Even Paul Reville, the former state education secretary and architect of the innovation school model, questions their inclusion in the count, saying districts have been timid in their use of the freedom to innovate under the innovation school option introduced six years ago. “On the whole, we haven’t seen a vigorous embrace of autonomy that suggests substantially different forms of education,” he says of innovation schools.

The state has 81 charter schools, enrolling about 40,000 students. They operate free of many of the constraints on district schools, with flexibility over teacher hiring, and over the structure and length of the school day. Supporters laud their track record in closing the achievement gap for low-income black and Latino students, with studies identifying Boston charters as the highest-performing charter sector in the country.

Critics have long complained that charters don’t enroll the most difficult to educate students, and that they drain money from districts because public school dollars move with students to whatever school they attend. The bill does not address that funding issue directly, but it ties the increase in the charter school cap to approximately $1.4 billion in new state spending for K-12 education overall, phased in over seven years.

Senate sponsors of the bill say it will give charter and district supporters a shared motive to push for the funding commitment to be kept. But even that provision has met with mixed reaction, as charter advocates say it’s unfair to tie charter growth to an uncertain, annual appropriation.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who is backing the bill, says the state also made a seven-year commitment to ramp up education aid after passing the 1993 Education Reform Act, which called for all districts to reach a minimum level of funding.

“If you look at history, the last time we made a multiyear commitment that every district would benefit by, in all seven years of it the money was delivered,” says Rosenberg. “If history is any guide, there will be a strong motivation for everybody to deliver on it.”

There is another parallel to the 1993 education reform effort: In both cases, it was an outside force that put pressure on elected officials to take action.

In 1993, a lawsuit before the Supreme Judicial Court argued that inadequate funding meant the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to students in poorer districts. With the SJC poised to impose a judicial remedy mandating new state spending for schools, the Legislature and then-Gov. William Weld agreed on a law that addressed funding disparities and has sent billions of dollars in new state aid to districts, with lots of it directed to poorer communities.

But state leaders seized the opportunity to go much farther.

The 1993 law introduced a sweeping set of new reforms, including the standards and accountability system that brought the MCAS exam, and changes to laws covering principals, teachers and school committees. The legislation also authorized the state’s first charter schools, an innovation designed to challenge the education status quo.

Fast forward 23 years and it is the threat of a ballot question allowing more charter schools that is stirring Beacon Hill to action.

“Without that, we would not be having this conversation,” says Rosenberg.

And as happened with the funding lawsuit in the early 1990s, he says, “we’ve taken the opportunity to broaden the conversation. We’ve shifted the paradigm to pull away from a discussion of Commonwealth charter schools exclusively.”

Asked whether the aim is to head off a contentious ballot question campaign in the fall, Rosenberg says, “It would be great if that could happen.”

It is clear, however, that won’t happen with the current Senate bill.

With the coalition of charter backers declaring it worse than no bill at all, and with some provisions that seem more likely to trip up charter growth than facilitate it, the Senate bill looks like a difficult starting point for an ultimate political agreement on charters.

If the Senate passes a charter bill, the action moves to the House, which is likely to work off a version of the bill it passed two years ago, sponsored by Rep. Alice Peisch, the House chair of the Joint Committee on Education.

It calls for a comparable increase in the charter cap as the Senate bill but ramps up that increase in half the amount of time – over five years, instead of 10 years. Like the Senate bill, it includes new autonomy for lower-performing district schools. But it does not include the various new restrictions and rules on charters that the Senate bill calls for.

If the House passes its own bill, a conference committee of House and Senate members would be formed to try to fashion a compromise measure.

Gov. Charlie Baker has filed a bill that mirrors the language of the ballot question – allowing up to 12 new charters per year. It is unclear whether he would be satisfied with any legislative solution that falls far short of that at this point.

It’s similarly unclear whether there is a bill that could clear both branches of the Legislature that would lead backers of the ballot campaign — which is being coordinated by the same strategy firm that ran Baker’s 2014 campaign for governor — to call off their effort.

Much of of the focus of charter schools is on poor and minority students stuck on the lower end of the academic achievement gap. Chris Gabrieli, who directs a Boston nonprofit focused on bringing charter school-like flexibilities to district schools, says the charter bill ideally should be an opportunity to think even more broadly about strategies to help those students.

A 2010 education reform law gave the state new authority to intervene in chronically underperforming schools. Gabrieli is chairman of a new school authority that oversees a set of low-performing Springfield middle schools that were facing likely state takeover. They are now part of a novel district-state initiative that was developed to use the same autonomies of a state takeover to rethink the operation of long-struggling schools.

“In 1993, the Legislature said, we have sand in the oysters, let’s make a pearl,” he says of the funding lawsuit. “We’ve got sand in the oyster again. Let’s see if the Legislature can make pearl.”

At this point, that looks like wishful thinking, with a divisive ballot fight looking more likely than a bejeweled education bill.

Reville, the former education secretary, who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says deciding the charter question through a ballot campaign would be “an unfortunate direction in which to move our policymaking on complicated education matters.”

It would not mark a political resolution of the issue as much as it would signal the inability of leaders to come terms with it.

The losing side might just gear up for another ballot campaign, he says. At a minimum, it would leave the charter debate unsettled and the atmosphere charged.

“It’s certainly not closure to have it to go to the ballot box,” he says. For whichever side prevails, “it would be a pyrrhic victory if you think it’s over.”

14 replies on “Is charter debate headed for resolution or over the cliff?”

  1. The photo accompanying this article has appeared at least three times in the last few weeks which shows how desperate CommonWealth is to sway its readers to favor more charter schools. An unbiased approach would be to show no photo but that’s not how CommonWealth rolls when it comes to charter schools.

  2. The Education Reform Act of 1993 brought more funding for public education and charter schools. The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 was enacted which created a reimbursement formula to offset the funding losses from students attending charter schools because it was set up to lift the cap on Massachusetts charter schools. President Obama and Arne Duncan used “Race to the Top” as a carrot for more charter schools. Charter school proponents collected enough signatures to place a question to lift the cap on the November ballot but really only wanted to use it as a club to make the state legislature take action to increase the number of charters in Massachusetts. The question is: why do charter schools need carrots and clubs to expand? Once you start peeling the charter school onion then it becomes so obvious. Charter schools can’t stand on their own merits, they can’t withstand public scrutiny and have no public benefit. The fact is, charter school proponents supposedly wanted the public to decide the question…and I agree. Let the voters decide. End any possibility of charter school expansion…just end it.

  3. How many times was the discredited charter school wait list mentioned in this article without noting it has been thoroughly discredited by the State Auditor’s office in a report and a follow up analysis? Twice…two times. For Pete’s sake, CommonWealth can’t even acknowledge the 34,000 names…even though whittled down by tens of thousands over the past few years ..still overstate the charter schools waitlist? Why is CommonWealth so afraid to provide that context? Who benefits from such a one-sided article in favor of charter schools? Certainly not CommonWealth’s readers.

  4. What does it mean when this CommonWealth editor wrote, “charters, which are publicly funded, but operated independent of districts, usually with non-unionized teachers” mean? It means when teachers in Massachusetts charter schools unionize…they join the Teamsters.

  5. Interesting how Gov. Charlie Baker said the senate bill “offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools” without referring to the State Auditor’s analysis showing there are 4,000 empty seats in charter schools not being filled with prospective students on the waitlist. Isn’t that something worth looking into? Charter school proponents keep pointing to the waitlist as a reason for more charter schools while charter schools don’t use that waitlist to fill 4,000 seats left empty when students leave charter schools. It’s unbelievable, but true.

  6. And what’s with the “poison pills?” “Among them is a provision that would let communities effectively block new charter schools in a community by allowing them to count seats at in-district “innovation” schools and in-district charter schools in the calculation used to determine when the local cap on charters has been reached.” But it’s OK for DESE to merge names on those in-district charter waitlists with the charter school waitlists to overstate the number of names on those waitlists? The State Auditor’s Office said “mixing the two is misleading.”

  7. What’s with how charter schools “operate free of many of the constraints on district schools?” Siblings of current students are exempt from the much touted “lottery” that’s supposedly open to everyone. At Sturgis Charter Public School the freshman class…for at least the past few years is about 40% siblings…meaning only about 60% of seats are subject to the lottery. Sturgis doesn’t backfill empty seats. Sturgis does not accept students in grades 11 and 12. Sturgis’ student body is not reflective of the school districts’ student bodies. But it’s considered a high performing charter school.

  8. “The state has 81 charter schools, enrolling about 40,000 students.” Now for the rest of the story. If you do an internet search “Mass DESE charter school fact sheets” you’ll find since 1994 there were 108 charter granted, 3 haven’t opened, 24 were closed or never opened or had their charter revoked or merged which leaves 81 charter schools operating in Massachusetts. Thirteen charter schools are operating under conditions or are on probation. A fourteenth charter school just had its conditions lifted, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden. MVRCS submitted expansions requests in 2011, 2012, and 2013, which were denied.

  9. Seriously, CommonWealth considers this article “an in-depth backgrounder” on the charter school debate? I really can’t believe it…I really…really… can’t believe it.

  10. Poor Mr. Jonas’s tone in the fourth paragraph suggests that he’s about to faint back on the divan due to the ‘polarized’ nature of the debate, and the possibility that the forced march of school reform will not receive the ready stamp of ‘the deliberative process’ this time around.

    (Did not the most recent iteration in 2010, which you admirably relate above, not also short-circuit our beloved deliberative process with blackmail, where pro-charter paid activists threatened a referendum if the Act wasn’t passed? Is this iteration not, then, very much of a piece with recent history, rather than representing a breach from it? Isn’t the apt comparison to 2010, not 1993? If so, the relevant difference that I see between 2010 and 2016 is that there’s no promise of a one-time and short-term infusion of cash money from Obama and his basketball buddy. This lack of a fed.gov assist will indeed make ‘the next iteration’ far more contentious.)

    More to your last point. . . what the heck is the view of democracy implicit in this article?

    – Representative democracy is GOOD, so long as legislators give privatizing deformers what they want in a decorous way. Hence, House good, Senate naughty.

    – A referendum is BAD, because it represents a failure of governance (which, per the previous, means government giving public money earmarked for children away to carpetbaggers). Hence, voters bad, direct democracy bad.

    – Public oversight, like that traditional schools and districts are subjected to, is BAD. Hence unaccountability good, Senate bill bad.

    I can only conclude that the vision of democracy emerging here is one of untrammeled giveaways for connected insiders. Anything else is cause for much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I really hope Reville is misrepresented from within the HGSE bubble when he provides the kicker to this ideology: trust the technocrats. We’ve gotten you this far. Hold the line against democracy.

    PS. . . I apologize for rambling. . . “Much of of the focus of charter schools is on poor and minority students stuck on the lower end of the academic achievement gap.” This must be the most trite sentiment I’ve ever seen in printed in this magazine. That they do, that they’re effective, that they’re more effective is hardly beyond debate. And the implication that public schools are not is incredibly insulting. Yuck. I’ll have to wash my own mouth out with soap.

  11. Don’t apologize for rambling. CommonWealth’s reporters and editors should apologize to its readers for its horrible, one-sided news reporting and commentaries in favor of charter schools that actually undermine an informed public debate. But in fairness that’s the only way charter school proponents can gain any traction. An open, honest discussion with full context on charter schools and public education would end up with charter schools going extinct. Charter schools contribute nothing to public education. The lopsided coverage of charter schools distract from the real public education issues.

  12. Now this pro-charter school article is a “primer” offered by CommonWealth? Instead of making a real effort to bring both sides of the charter school issue to its readers…including the long overdue context on the discredited waitlist…CommonWealth refers to this article in today’s Daily Download as a “primer” on the issue. Again, I really can’t believe it…I really…really… can’t believe it

  13. I was just on the WCVB5 website looking at a slide show on Massachusetts towns with the most foreign language speakers. Twenty were featured ranging from Cambridge with 32% of the population speaking a language other than English to Chelsea with 68.8% and Lawrence where 76.6% of the population speak a language other than English. That has to have a huge impact on the public school districts.

  14. Now this article shows how the state senate’s legislation is “intended to strike a balance?” What balance? There is no balance in the bill. There is no balance in the news coverage either. CommonWealth tilts toward more charter schools without giving any real insight into charter schools. How about starting there? Then CommonWealth can take an in-depth look into the financing public education. After all that, CommonWealth’s readers will know all they need to know to cast an informed vote on the charter school ballot question in November. That vote will be no… no more charter schools…no more diversion of public funds from public schools. Then it will be time to start making public schools across the state a real funding priority.

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