Is charter debate headed for resolution or over the cliff?

With ballot question looming, a test for state leaders

WILL THURSDAY MARK the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of the charter school debate on Beacon Hill?

That’s the question as the Senate prepares to take up a measure that satisfies neither charter proponents nor opponents. Some have pronounced the unpopular Senate proposal a nonstarter, and concluded that the charter question will be fought out via a November ballot question.

It may well come to that. But it’s worth asking whether the state’s political leaders can rise to the challenge of sorting through a thorny issue and reaching a satisfactory political resolution.

If they can’t, it would be a sign of just how polarized the education debate in Massachusetts has become. It would also mark the first time in the 23 years since the state’s landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 that the next iteration of school reform couldn’t be worked out through the deliberative process.

Two years ago, the House approved a bill to increase the cap on charter schools in low-performing school districts, but it died in the Senate. Frustrated charter advocates, who say 34,000 students on wait lists are being denied a chance to attend a charter school, have now taken matters in their own hands: They are gearing up to place a question on the November ballot that would allow up to 12 additional or expanded charter schools each year.

It would be a costly and contentious ballot fight, and the outcome is far from certain. Yet both sides seem dug in, more interested in duking it out than talking it over.

If there’s a way out of the ballot fight, it starts with the Senate, since it is the reluctant Beacon Hill player. The House and Gov. Charlie Baker are both ready to embrace an increase in the charter school cap.

Last week, a group of four senators unveiled legislation that would gradually raise the cap on charters, while also putting new rules in place on their governance structure and enrollment and retention practices. The plan also ties increases in the charter-school cap to additional funding each year for all schools in the state.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, says the bill meets the “moral standard” she has tried to follow of equally supporting families in her Boston district with children in both district and charter schools.

“It addresses a lot of the issues we have raised,” says Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

But a loud chorus of critics has said it fails on multiple fronts. The bill would place lots of new restrictions on charters, including requiring that they maintain retention rates equal to the local district, and that their boards of trustees include a member of the local district school committee.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a statement, said the bill “offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools.”

A coalition of pro-charter Boston community groups denounced the bill, saying the Senate measure would be “worse than if they had taken no action at all.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it favors new rules for charters but opposes any bill that would allow for more charters, which are publicly funded, but operated independent of districts, usually with non-unionized teachers.

Some measures in the bill, such as new transparency requirements on finances and contracting, represent healthy new accountability bringing charters in line with district public schools. A provision that would automatically enter all students in local charter lotteries, with an opt-out option if they are awarded a seat, is similar to proposal Boston is considering to create a more user-friendly, “unified” enrollment system for district and charter schools.

But other provisions seem overly prescriptive and compliance-driven. In the name of of promoting collaboration between district and charter schools, the bill would require a charter applicant to hold a meeting with the local district superintendent.

What’s even more troubling to charter advocates, along with calling for a much more gradual increase in the charter cap than the House bill passed two years ago, the Senate bill includes some elements they see as “poison pills.”

Among them is a provision that would let communities effectively block new charter schools in a community by allowing them to count seats at in-district “innovation” schools and in-district charter schools in the calculation used to determine when the local cap on charters has been reached.

Under that formula, say charter advocates, Boston would already be at the cap for adding new independently-run charters if its innovation and in-district charter schools are counted.

Even Paul Reville, the former state education secretary and architect of the innovation school model, questions their inclusion in the count, saying districts have been timid in their use of the freedom to innovate under the innovation school option introduced six years ago. “On the whole, we haven’t seen a vigorous embrace of autonomy that suggests substantially different forms of education,” he says of innovation schools.

The state has 81 charter schools, enrolling about 40,000 students. They operate free of many of the constraints on district schools, with flexibility over teacher hiring, and over the structure and length of the school day. Supporters laud their track record in closing the achievement gap for low-income black and Latino students, with studies identifying Boston charters as the highest-performing charter sector in the country.

Critics have long complained that charters don’t enroll the most difficult to educate students, and that they drain money from districts because public school dollars move with students to whatever school they attend. The bill does not address that funding issue directly, but it ties the increase in the charter school cap to approximately $1.4 billion in new state spending for K-12 education overall, phased in over seven years.

Senate sponsors of the bill say it will give charter and district supporters a shared motive to push for the funding commitment to be kept. But even that provision has met with mixed reaction, as charter advocates say it’s unfair to tie charter growth to an uncertain, annual appropriation.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who is backing the bill, says the state also made a seven-year commitment to ramp up education aid after passing the 1993 Education Reform Act, which called for all districts to reach a minimum level of funding.

“If you look at history, the last time we made a multiyear commitment that every district would benefit by, in all seven years of it the money was delivered,” says Rosenberg. “If history is any guide, there will be a strong motivation for everybody to deliver on it.”

There is another parallel to the 1993 education reform effort: In both cases, it was an outside force that put pressure on elected officials to take action.

In 1993, a lawsuit before the Supreme Judicial Court argued that inadequate funding meant the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to students in poorer districts. With the SJC poised to impose a judicial remedy mandating new state spending for schools, the Legislature and then-Gov. William Weld agreed on a law that addressed funding disparities and has sent billions of dollars in new state aid to districts, with lots of it directed to poorer communities.

But state leaders seized the opportunity to go much farther.

The 1993 law introduced a sweeping set of new reforms, including the standards and accountability system that brought the MCAS exam, and changes to laws covering principals, teachers and school committees. The legislation also authorized the state’s first charter schools, an innovation designed to challenge the education status quo.

Fast forward 23 years and it is the threat of a ballot question allowing more charter schools that is stirring Beacon Hill to action.

“Without that, we would not be having this conversation,” says Rosenberg.

And as happened with the funding lawsuit in the early 1990s, he says, “we’ve taken the opportunity to broaden the conversation. We’ve shifted the paradigm to pull away from a discussion of Commonwealth charter schools exclusively.”

Asked whether the aim is to head off a contentious ballot question campaign in the fall, Rosenberg says, “It would be great if that could happen.”

It is clear, however, that won’t happen with the current Senate bill.

With the coalition of charter backers declaring it worse than no bill at all, and with some provisions that seem more likely to trip up charter growth than facilitate it, the Senate bill looks like a difficult starting point for an ultimate political agreement on charters.

If the Senate passes a charter bill, the action moves to the House, which is likely to work off a version of the bill it passed two years ago, sponsored by Rep. Alice Peisch, the House chair of the Joint Committee on Education.

It calls for a comparable increase in the charter cap as the Senate bill but ramps up that increase in half the amount of time – over five years, instead of 10 years. Like the Senate bill, it includes new autonomy for lower-performing district schools. But it does not include the various new restrictions and rules on charters that the Senate bill calls for.

If the House passes its own bill, a conference committee of House and Senate members would be formed to try to fashion a compromise measure.

Gov. Charlie Baker has filed a bill that mirrors the language of the ballot question – allowing up to 12 new charters per year. It is unclear whether he would be satisfied with any legislative solution that falls far short of that at this point.

It’s similarly unclear whether there is a bill that could clear both branches of the Legislature that would lead backers of the ballot campaign — which is being coordinated by the same strategy firm that ran Baker’s 2014 campaign for governor — to call off their effort.

Much of of the focus of charter schools is on poor and minority students stuck on the lower end of the academic achievement gap. Chris Gabrieli, who directs a Boston nonprofit focused on bringing charter school-like flexibilities to district schools, says the charter bill ideally should be an opportunity to think even more broadly about strategies to help those students.

A 2010 education reform law gave the state new authority to intervene in chronically underperforming schools. Gabrieli is chairman of a new school authority that oversees a set of low-performing Springfield middle schools that were facing likely state takeover. They are now part of a novel district-state initiative that was developed to use the same autonomies of a state takeover to rethink the operation of long-struggling schools.

“In 1993, the Legislature said, we have sand in the oysters, let’s make a pearl,” he says of the funding lawsuit. “We’ve got sand in the oyster again. Let’s see if the Legislature can make pearl.”

At this point, that looks like wishful thinking, with a divisive ballot fight looking more likely than a bejeweled education bill.

Reville, the former education secretary, who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says deciding the charter question through a ballot campaign would be “an unfortunate direction in which to move our policymaking on complicated education matters.”

It would not mark a political resolution of the issue as much as it would signal the inability of leaders to come terms with it.

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 losing side might just gear up for another ballot campaign, he says. At a minimum, it would leave the charter debate unsettled and the atmosphere charged.

“It’s certainly not closure to have it to go to the ballot box,” he says. For whichever side prevails, “it would be a pyrrhic victory if you think it’s over.”