Charter schools’ early days in Massachusetts

Two players from 1993 ed reform reflect on charter history – and future

JUST HOURS BEFORE Gov. Charlie Baker joined with Hispanic leaders in East Boston on Tuesday afternoon to rally on behalf of his proposal to raise the cap on charter schools, two people who were there when charter schools were first authorized in the state 23 years ago shared some of that history – and considered the lessons it offers for today’s debate.

Jones-Barrett

Tripp Jones and state Sen. Michael Barrett.

State Sen. Michael Barrett and Tripp Jones, who was a chief aide to Rep. Mark Roosevelt, a principal author of the 1993 Education Reform Act, spoke at a policy forum organized by Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization.

They said Massachusetts charters have lived up to their promise of providing a quality choice for families, but both of them worried that charter proponents have put the issue on a collision course that pits district school supporters against those hoping to raise the cap on charters this year.

Jones said a goal at the outset of the education reform effort was for charter schools, which are publicly funded but run independently of district systems, to innovate and develop new approaches that would “affect the regular traditional school systems.”

Barrett said things like longer school days at charters are one such innovation, but he said districts have been slow to adopt them. He said part of the reason is that districts have not gained the sort of flexibility charters employ to use tutors or other lower-cost paraprofessionals to supplement the work of regular classroom teachers.

“Charters have fulfilled their obligation to innovate,” said Barrett. “It’s up to the regular district schools to find a way to get it done too.”

Barrett represented a Cambridge-based Senate district in the early 1990s when the education reform law was enacted. He gave up his seat in 1994 to mount an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for governor, but then returned to the Senate in 2013, when he was elected from a suburban district that includes Lexington, where he now lives.

Barrett, a strong charter supporter, said he has always viewed charter schools as a civil rights issue, arguing that they provide an option for lower-income families who are not satisfied with their district schools but “can’t move to Lexington.”

Studies have shown that Massachusetts has one of the highest-performing charter school sectors in the country, with Boston charters showing particularly strong achievement results. Massachusetts has maintained a more rigorous charter school authorization process than other states, a factor that many say has contributed to the quality of the state’s charter schools. Jones said forcing applicants to compete for charters has been healthy.

He also said a charter cap “has contributed greatly to Massachusetts having a higher proportion of higher-performing charters.”

Jones, a co-founder of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth, said the original draft of the education reform law did not include any cap on charters. He said then-House Speaker Charlie Flaherty, in meetings with Roosevelt and staffers working on the bill, “asked about this charter thing and how it would be kept manageable.”

Jones said Flaherty provided key guidance during the drafting of the bill, while still showing great deference to Roosevelt as the chief House architect and supporting the final House bill, even with some provisions he might have had his own reservations about.

The bill that was finally enacted in June 1993 included a cap of no more than 25 charters.

The cap has been increased over time and now allows for up to 120 schools, but charter school proponents say some 34,000 students are on waiting lists for a charter school seat.

Baker has proposed allowing 12 new or expanded charter schools per year in the state’s lowest performing districts.

A group of senators has been meeting to try to devise a compromise that would pass the Senate and satisfy Baker and charter school proponents. If they aren’t successful, proponents are prepared to send the question to the November ballot, where they have said they will spend as much as $18 million on a campaign to raise the cap. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has vowed to fight vigorously to defeat a ballot question.

In 2014, the House passed legislation raising the charter cap, but it was defeated in the Senate, 30-9.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg has said he wants any cap lift to be accompanied by more comprehensive reforms that address such issues as charter school governance and financing as well enrollment practices for special education students and English language learners.

Barrett suggested that a charter bill will need to include some significant additional provisions in order to have a chance of winning majority support among his colleagues. He said legislators are loath to switch their position on an issue they have previously taken a vote on, and said the 2014 bill was pushed “prematurely” before proponents had won over a majority of senators.

“It means a radically different kind of concept will have to be advanced before you’ll see anyone switch from their 2014 vote,” he said at the forum.

The 1993 charter school authorization was part of a sweeping education reform bill that brought billions of dollars in new state aid to schools, much of it directed to lower-income communities. The law also established a new system of standards and accountability, which gave rise to the state’s curriculum frameworks and MCAS exam.

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.

Jones said by focusing this year entirely on raising the charter cap, proponents have stirred wider opposition than would have been the case if a charter plan were part of legislation that included broader reform measures for district schools.

“We’ve made a mistake in making this so much about charter schools,” he said, “as opposed to [making it about] the next phase of change and reform.”