Massachusetts education leaders are creating a new pipeline to develop and open more charter schools across the state, as they grapple with a dearth of applications and political hostility to new charter proposals.
The state’s effort aims to add charter schools in districts with high concentrations of low-income students and those at high risk of quitting school. Currently, there are 76 charter schools and more than 21,000 students are on waiting lists.
Yet growth in new charters has been nearly nonexistent. Worcester Cultural Academy made history this fall as the first charter school to open in Massachusetts in five years, breaking the longest drought ever for new charter startups. The school endured a bruising fight with teachers unions and local elected officials, who worried about losing millions of dollars in state aid to the charter.
Beth Anderson, president of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said the difficult political climate surrounding charter schools is probably deterring educators and others from opening new schools. She welcomed any help the state can provide.
“You want to do right by kids. If it becomes a political argument where you feel like kids are going to get sidelined, and you have to spend more time on the politics and less time on what you want to do. . . that can be arduous,” said Anderson, who is chief executive officer and founder of Phoenix Charter Academy Network, which has schools in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Springfield.
Over the next five years, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education expects to work with up to a dozen charter school developers per year. A portion of an $11 million federal grant will be used to hire an external expert to help individuals or organizations develop new charter proposals and support them through the application process, according to a bid posted this summer on the state’s procurement website.
State education leaders and many policy experts have long considered charter schools a critical ingredient in helping academically struggling students. The independently run public schools, which largely operate without unionized teachers, have adopted many strategies known to boost student achievement, including extended school days and intensive tutoring. Massachusetts has among the highest-performing charter schools nationwide.
But a number of charter schools have lost some of their shine during the pandemic, posting significantly lower MCAS scores than in previous years.
The expansion will focus on districts with room to add new charter schools under state law, which limits the amount of school spending that can go towards charter school tuition. Those districts include Brockton, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Worcester.
Some of the most popular places for charter school developers — Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville — probably will be off limits because they are near their charter school caps.
The state’s quest to accelerate charter school expansion is likely to ignite resistance from charter school opponents. The move comes nearly seven years after Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have largely allowed unfettered growth of charter schools.
Opponents, led by the state’s powerful teacher unions, have remained well organized, launching local campaigns that have included boycotts of organizations and businesses that support new charter school proposals. The Worcester School Committee this spring banned student field trips to Old Sturbridge Village, which is providing management services to Worcester Cultural Academy, and requested several state investigations into the financial relationship between the museum and the charter school.
A chief concern among opponents is how the state funds charter schools: About $987.5 million in per-pupil state aid is expected to be diverted from local districts to cover charter school tuition costs this school year. To soften the blow, the state is expected to reimburse districts about $250 million.
Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, called the state’s quest to expand charter schools “appalling.” He said the union is prepared to fight it.
“We won a landslide victory,” he said, referring to the 2016 ballot question vote. “It didn’t stop the charter school movement in its tracks, but it did dramatically slow it down.”
Since the ballot question defeat, the state has received only 15 proposals for new charter schools and has approved just five new schools. Three were approved a few months after the November 2016 election, creating outrage among opponents.
By comparison, the state received 102 proposals for new charter schools during the seven years leading up to the ballot question vote, resulting in two to 16 a year getting approved.
Tracy O’Connell Novick, a Worcester School Committee member, questioned the need to expand charters, noting that the new effort assumes “the lack of applications is actually a problem that needs to be solved.”
“The Massachusetts educational community had a pretty strong statement regarding what they thought about charters” in voting down the ballot question, she said.
The anemic growth in new charter schools reflects a national trend that began before the pandemic. Behind the slowdown is a confluence of factors, such as declining enrollment in many large urban districts, which is chipping away at charter school demand, and a political backlash against charter schools, which often are associated with other controversial education initiatives, such as standardized testing.
That Massachusetts got swept into the anti-charter trend surprises many national experts because the state is known to have among the nation’s highest-performing charter schools and a rigorous vetting process for new charter schools.
“If growth is slowing for reasons that do not have to do with quality and do not have to do with demand, then there’s a political issue at play,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University.
She added: “Massachusetts has always had strong leaders who are willing to look beyond typical political lines and find solutions.”
The pace of charter school enrollment growth in Massachusetts has slowed down. Enrollment expanded by about 7,100 students from October 2016 to October 2022, compared to more than 13,000 students from October 2010 and to October 2016, according to the charter school association. (The data excludes a handful of charter schools overseen by local districts.)
Charter schools educate nearly 46,000 students, about 5 percent of all public school students.
So far, the Legislature has shown no desire to increase the charter school cap, which limits the proportion of school spending on charters to 9 percent in most communities, and to 18 percent in the lowest-performing districts.
Governor Maura Healey has said little about charter expansion, but opposed the ballot question when she was attorney general.
Leaders of Worcester Cultural Academy are hoping to put behind them the public discourse over their opening.
But state inquiries into Old Sturbridge Village’s financial relationship with the charter school loom. Worcester School Committee members are alarmed that last year’s annual report for Old Sturbridge Village noted the charter school would provide reliable revenue to the museum, raising questions about whether state education aid intended for the charter would be used to offset the museum’s operating costs. In their complaint to state agencies, the local officials said the museum would receive $1.7 million over five years in management fees. Old Sturbridge Village has said the management contract is “less than what the school would have to pay to hire these individuals on its own.”
State Auditor Diana DiZoglio said in a statement that her office is conducting an audit.
In one significant gesture of good will, Worcester Public Schools is continuing field trips to Old Sturbridge Village that are funded by donations.
In welcoming students to school, Worcester Cultural Academy’s leaders decided their first lessons on character education would focus on courage. As the head of school, Lisa DeTora, explained in a recent interview: “It’s very courageous to start a new school.”