On charters, rise above the divisiveness

Bill targets cap, funding, discipline, admissions

BALLOT QUESTIONS ARE blunt instruments. The ballot question on charter school expansion is no exception.  It has a very narrow focus, targeted only at increasing the number of students in charter schools. Both pro- and anti-charter groups have pledged tens of millions of dollars to support their efforts, leading to a divisive and costly public debate that is fundamentally constrained. Children in our public schools deserve a comprehensive and nuanced discussion. If the ballot question passes, more charter schools could be created in the next five years than were created in the prior 20, with a price tag exposing  the Commonwealth to $1 billion and impacting less than 10 percent of students.

A more comprehensive piece of legislation would provide better educational opportunities for students in all forms of publicly funded schools. Massachusetts is known to have some of the best public schools in the country, but our job is far from done. We have a responsibility to ensure a sound education for every single one of our students.

The Massachusetts Senate made the decision to have an exceptionally thorough discussion about public education with various stakeholders, from parents to folks on both sides of the charter ballot question.  Appointed by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, a working group made up of Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Pat Jehlen, Karen Spilka, and Dan Wolf participated in countless hours of discussions and stakeholder meetings.

The result is a bill, called the RISE Act, that would increase innovation, transparency, accountability, and access for all students in the Commonwealth, not just a select few. Recognizing findings that the Commonwealth is underfunding public education by over $1 billion, the legislation provides a safeguard for proper funding by proportionally reducing the cap lift if the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations for Chapter 70 investments are not fully funded (beginning in FY19). The cap lift contained in the bill is a targeted cap lift focusing on the lowest performing districts. In those districts, district net spending will be raised, at most, from 18 percent to 23 percent over 10 years (.5 percent per year). Furthermore, the bill permits school districts to count Horace Mann charter schools and Innovation Schools toward net school spending, but does not limit their growth.

We also revised the charter school admissions process. Every year, we hear stories of families and children disappointed when they are not picked in the charter school lottery. This bill eliminates the traditional lottery system and replaces it with an opt-out lottery, or unified enrollment, meaning every child in the district is automatically enrolled in the charter school lottery process, no application required. Families who choose, for whatever reason, not to take a seat offered to them, would just decline it. The bill also eliminates parent contracts and mandatory fees at charter schools, just as they are prohibited from district schools, and requires that charter schools backfill openings when students depart mid-year.

The issue of discipline in charter schools has raised grave concerns. In Massachusetts, 9 out of the 10 schools with the highest out-of-school suspension rates are charters. The legislation requires out-of-school suspension rates of a charter school to be commensurate with the sending district school suspension rate before renewal of a charter application.

The Senate has made a commitment to increased transparency, as we showed by passing a public records reform bill. We seized this opportunity to increase transparency in public education, too. Under this bill, there will be public disclosure of charter school finance, contracts, policies, and board meetings consistent with disclosure requirements for traditional public schools. This bill also improves charter school boards by requiring them to have teacher and parent representatives, elected by other parents, to ensure that parents have a voice in the governance of the school.

There is more to this bill than can be quickly discussed in an article, but we hope that this overview of the key provisions, along with the reasons these issues were included, increases understanding. There is too much at stake to continue to have an overly simplistic discussion focused on whether or not to lift the cap on charter schools. Education can be the great equalizer. If we make sure all our public school students have the best education we can provide, it will be.

Meet the Author

Stanley Rosenberg

Former state senator, Massachusetts Senate
Meet the Author

Karen Spilka

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
Meet the Author

Sonia Chang-Diaz

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
Meet the Author

Dan Wolf

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
With comprehensive legislation enhancing innovation, opportunity, transparency, and accountability, while holding our teachers to the highest standards, Massachusetts could be poised to improve our best-in-the-nation schools across the board, for all students and for generations to come. Everyone in Massachusetts, especially our children, deserves to see this bill become the law. It’s time we rise above the divisiveness of the charter wars and focus on innovative strategies to close the achievement gap and support all of our children. It’s time to rise to the occasion and pass the RISE Act.

Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst is the president of the Massachusetts Senate. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Karen Spilka, and Daniel Wolf are the senators from Boston, Ashland, and Harwich, respectively.