Metro

New charter schools unlikely in Massachusetts

Advocates critical as state halts plans in Brockton, Fitchburg

For the first time in 15 years, Massachusetts education officials probably will not be approving any new independently run charter schools this year, a prospect that is stunning proponents and applicants.

Two new charter schools, in Brockton and Fitchburg, nearly got the green light, but were halted last week after officials discovered that the proposals had advanced through the state’s approval process because of a procedural error by the state Department of Education.

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Proponents say the move represents another blow in their quest to open more charter schools across the state. It comes just three months after the state Senate overwhelmingly rejected an increase in the number of charter schools that can operate in low-performing districts.

“It’s disappointing to everyone that a technicality like this is stopping momentum and taking away a school that can do so much,” said Omari Walker, president of the Resiliency Foundation, a nonprofit that is developing the New Heights Charter School of Brockton. “We feel this is prohibiting students from an opportunity in life they would not otherwise get.”

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New Heights would have been the first independent charter school in Brockton.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has been pushing for more charter schools, said the state is doing great injury to charter schools and the cities they want to serve.

“We still have an immense crisis in these communities given the absolute achievement of these students,” Grogan said.

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Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are intended to be laboratories of educational innovation. They operate under looser state regulations than traditional schools and are rarely unionized.

Seventy operate independently of local school systems, while 10 others operate in partnership with a school district.

Many charter schools have among the highest MCAS scores, but some struggle academically and more than a dozen have closed, typically because of low test scores or financial problems.

The move last week delighted charter school opponents, who argue that such institutions drain funding from traditional school systems and cherry pick students, assertions that proponents dispute.

Kim Gibson, president of the Brockton Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said Brockton does not need a charter school.

“I really do believe Brockton teachers work extremely hard and are making a difference,” Gibson said. “The school system and teachers are always thinking of new ways to educate our children.”

In blocking the two current proposals, the state cited a provision in a 2010 education reform law that restricts where charter schools can open. The provision requires that at least two proposals in any given year be located in a district with MCAS performance in the bottom 10 percent in the state. Both Brockton and Fitchburg are above that threshold.

It was the first time the provision has halted the approval process. In past years, the state entertained many proposals for such low-performing districts as Boston.

But Boston, where many charter school operators want to locate, reached its state-imposed cap on charter enrollment two years ago, and the number of statewide finalists last year slipped to six. Only two of those were ultimately approved.

Jeff Wulfson, a state deputy education commissioner, said the error in the Brockton and Fitchburg proposals occurred because the charter school office was vetting the caliber of the applications while another office was simultaneously generating the list of districts in the bottom 10 percent. It was only after the charter school office selected the finalists that staff members realized they forgot to check the updated MCAS rankings.

However, Wulfson added, the applicants have been offered the opportunity to relocate their charter schools to a qualifying district.

“Whether that is feasible or not is undetermined at this point,” Wulfson said.

The New Heights applicants are committed to Brockton, Walker said, and intend to appeal the department’s decision to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

While the effort to add more independent charter school proposals appears stymied, the state continues to review three other proposals for charter schools that would operate in partnership with the Boston, Salem, and Springfield school systems.

Many charter school proponents, however, consider these “in-district charters “ to be less ideal than independent schools because they employ unionized teachers and are often subject to districtwide policies, restricting their autonomy.

Many charter school proponents are blaming state officials — and not the state law — for this year’s predicament. They say the Brockton and Fitchburg applicants would never have been in this situation had the state not changed the formula earlier this year for determining the bottom 10 percent of MCAS performance.

Under that change, the state is giving districts credit for boosting students’ test scores at high rates, a potential indicator of sound academic programs. That elevated Brockton and Fitchburg out of the bottom performers.

Charter school advocates, however, say students still deserve educational alternatives.

The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association plans to lobby the state education board this month to suspend the new formula and advance the Brockton and Fitchburg proposals.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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