Charter formula change draws fire

Brockton, Haverhill, Somerville, Worcester affected

Charter school leaders are sounding alarms over proposed changes in state education regulations that would shift a number of low-achieving school districts out of the group of communities where more charter schools are allowed.

The state board of elementary and secondary education is scheduled to consider a proposal next week that would modify the formula used to determine where charter school growth is allowed. A 2010 education law raised the cap on the number of charter school seats allowed in those districts that make up the lowest-performing 10 percent of all systems statewide.

Until now, the determination of which districts fall in the bottom 10 percent has been based entirely on achievement scores on the state MCAS exams. Last month, the state education board voted to incorporate into the formula a district’s growth score, a measure based not on raw test scores but on the amount of progress a district is making in boosting student performance.

The plan adopted last month would determine the lowest-performing 10 percent of districts using a measure based 80 percent on achievement scores and 20 percent on growth scores. Four urban communities – Brockton, Haverhill, Somerville, and Worcester – dropped out of the lowest-performing 10 percent category with that change.

At the urging of a group of legislators representing urban districts, the state’s education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, is now proposing that the board further increase to 30 percent the weight given to growth scores in the calculation. That change would drop Lowell and Fitchburg out of the group.

“It’s highly concerning,” said Janine Matho, deputy director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. “The intent of the 2010 law was to give high-need students in low-performing districts more choice and access to high-quality charter schools as an option. If this is approved, we start to move away from the intent of the law. This is an attempt to reduce charter school growth in places where kids need it most.”

More than half of all students in each of the six districts are from low-income households, according to the charter school association. Replacing the six districts removed under the existing and proposed formula changes would be Easthampton, Dennis-Yarmouth, Greenfield, Hawlemont, Marlborough, and Palmer. Of those, only Greenfield has a student population with a majority of the students from low-income households.

Thirteen lawmakers sent a letter last month to Chester urging him to put added weight on student growth scores, arguing that more emphasis should be placed on how well districts are doing at improving student performance. They say students from low-income homes almost invariably score lower than their more affluent peers on achievement tests, and districts serving lots of these students are being designated low performing even when they are making progress at boosting student scores.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a leader of the legislative group, says she would favor basing the 10 percent designation entirely on growth scores. “The only thing you should count is what the school does. You should not count who goes there,” said Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat.

Charter opponents have long complained that the publicly-funded, but independently operated, schools harm districts by siphoning funding from them and that they don’t enroll special needs students and English language learners at the same level as district schools.

“Raising the charter cap has had a devastating effect on low-income communities around the country,” Jehlen and her 12 colleagues wrote in a March 6 letter to Chester.

Proponents say charters have had exactly the opposite effect, and point to a Stanford University study that identified the Boston charters as the highest-performing cohort of charter schools in the country, with Boston charter students dramatically outperforming their matched peers.

The 2010 law raised from 9 percent to 18 percent the amount of total district school spending that could be directed to charter schools in districts that fell in the lowest performing 10 percent of all systems statewide. That effectively doubled the number of charter seats permitted in those communities.

The move last month to establish an 80-20 formula was part of an effort by state education officials to align the measure used in charter school regulations with new policies adopted last year for the state accountability system used for district schools.

Under a waiver the state received from the federal education department to modify its adherence to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Law, the state began to consider growth scores along with achievement in classifying the performance of schools and districts. Chronically underperforming schools and districts are subject to state takeover, something officials have done in recent years with the entire Lawrence district as well as with four individual schools across the state.

Jeff Wulfson, a deputy state education commissioner, said the state is trying “as much as possible to have the rankings for charter school purposes align with our school and district rankings.”

He said state officials are trying to focus on those districts that most need added resources, whether that means the added help that comes with state takeover of district schools or more charter school availability. Though growth scores are a valuable measure in addition to absolute achievement levels, he said there is a limit to how much they can be relied upon.

“Having high growth scores, if it doesn’t translate at some point into high achievement, doesn’t really get us where we want to be,” said Wulfson.

Wulfson also suggested that, in the wake of concerns being raised by charter school leaders, Chester is rethinking his proposal to raise the growth component of the charter formula to 30 percent. “He’s signaling that if folks would like to spend some more time looking at this and studying it, he’s amenable to that,” said Wulfson. “He’s not saying 70-30 is the only possible outcome.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The board has scheduled a hearing for Monday evening to consider the proposal, which is scheduled to be voted on at the board’s monthly meeting on Tuesday morning. But Wulfson suggested Chester may recommend that no vote take place and that the board opt to consider the issue further.

“I would not be surprised if there’s good discussion and no resolution at Tuesday’s meeting,” he said.