Give the state Senate credit for trying. In a last-ditch effort to avert a bitter November referendum to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, senators unveiled a multipart plan on Thursday that would raise the limit on charter schools under certain circumstances, while also imposing a slew of other requirements on some of the state’s most successful educators. While the legislation may have been the best the Senate could produce, the conditions attached to raising the cap are too onerous and, in some respects, may even be counterproductive. Unless dramatically different legislation emerges, charter advocates should go ahead with their referendum plan so that voters can get a chance to meet the clear demand for additional seats at charter schools.
Thousands of children in low-performing districts are on waiting lists for a spot at charters, public schools that operate independently of districts and have demonstrated impressive results. Yet the Legislature has blocked efforts to allow more seats, leaving advocates no recourse but to organize the petition drive for a referendum. The opposition comes partly from districts that view charters as a threat, since students who transfer to a charter school take funding with them. The theory is that those districts don’t need money for children they no longer educate, but districts complain that charters tend to attract students who are cheaper to educate and leave districts to serve a high-needs, high-cost population. Teachers unions also object to charters, whose workforces have generally opted against unionization.
The central feature of the Senate legislation is an explicit linkage between the charter cap and overall school funding. Rather than simply lifting the cap, as the referendum advocates want, under the Senate bill growth in the number of charter seats will be at the mercy of future action by Beacon Hill to provide another $1 billion in school aid. As a political matter, senators hope that the linkage will force charters and districts onto the same team, since they’ll both have a common interest in obtaining greater state funding.
The problem, though, is that the state doesn’t have a spare $1 billion lying around under its sofa cushions. Making a cap lift contingent on revenue that may well never materialize threatens to needlessly delay or block the necessary expansion of charters.
The Senate bill also imposes changes to the governance structure of charters, a puzzling violation of the old dictum about not fixing what isn’t broken. It would micromanage the composition of their boards, and require them to meet certain disciplinary and attrition standards and labor practices. But the autonomy of charters is one of the very reasons they’ve been successful. For many parents, the independence and rigor of charters is a feature, not a bug.
Still, while some parts of the Senate proposal are questionable, there are other commendable reforms in the bill that should be adopted. The bill would require all charter schools to either participate in the enrollment systems in their local school districts, or to offer opt-out lotteries. All students in the district would be automatically entered in charter school lotteries, leaving the decision to parents of opting out if the student is offered a seat. The provision would reduce some of the stress for parents attempting to navigate public school enrollment, and would be especially beneficial in Boston. The combined enrollment would also address the lingering suspicion that charters “skim off” better students — those whose parents are motivated enough to enter them into the lottery — by ensuring that the students offered admission to charter schools are broadly representative.
In another good move, the Senate proposal also removes altogether the cap on any new charter schools that serve at-risk students, or those who have dropped out of school, or are homeless or pregnant teens. It’s a model that the Phoenix Academy has successfully pioneered in Chelsea, Springfield, and Lawrence — all low-performing districts with high percentages of English-language learners and low-income students.
It would have been easy for the state Senate to dodge a hot-button issue, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg deserves credit for making a serious effort that has produced some genuinely good ideas. Whatever happens in November, the enrollment reforms and provisions for at-risk students the Senate has proposed should become law. But on the fundamental goal of increasing the number of charter seats for the Commonwealth’s neediest students, the Senate bill doesn’t offer advocates a good enough alternative to call off the referendum.