Charter schools legislation is a Gateway Cities bill

Boston is often seen as the center of the Massachusetts charter school movement, but charter school activity is equally vigorous in the state’s 11 Gateway Cities. Together they have just as many charters as Boston (16), and significantly higher charter school enrollment (8,416 students vs. 4,962). Any change in the state’s approach to charters will clearly have an outsized impact on Gateway Cities.

How many charters the state should authorize is presently the focal point of the Massachusetts education reform debate. Under current law, the state constrains charter school growth by limiting the amount of support charters can draw from local school districts to 9 percent of the district’s net school spending.

Readiness legislation (H. 4163), which Gov. Patrick recently introduced, would raise the state’s charter cap to 18 percent. This move was prompted, at least in part, by pressure from the Obama administration. In June, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested his department would give added consideration in distributing $4.4 billion in Race to the Top funds to states that relax limits on charter school expansion.

The governor’s bill has a particular Gateway Cities focus because it lifts the cap only in the lowest 10 percent of districts, as measured by combined Composite Performance Index scores on the English and math MCAS exams. Based on our analysis of 2008 MCAS results, this limits its effect to 23 districts, including all of the Gateway Cities with the exception of Haverhill.

While the bill will have the most immediate influence on communities at or near the current 9 percent of net school spending cap, like Boston, many Gateway City districts are already approaching this point (Table 1). Holyoke is at 8.5 percent; some of the largest Gateway districts, including Springfield and Worcester, are nearing 8 percent.

Table 1

According to FY09 data from the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education, charters in Gateway City districts could still enroll more than 4,500 students under the current 9 percent cap. If the cap ceiling were doubled to 18 percent as the legislation proposes, charters could potentially serve more than 13,000 Gateway City students (Table 2).

Table 2

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

While MassINC has gone on record supporting the governor’s charter bill, we recognize that this legislation presents some additional challenges to district schools, at least in the short term. But the bill only awards new charters to charter school providers with a proven track record of success. More quality choices in public education for families and students will be available quickly and efficiently, and we think that’s a good thing for Gateway Cities and the state.

Regardless of where you fall on this issue, those who are passionate about Gateway Cities and their future should see this bill as a chance to talk about educational outcomes in these communities. Since education reform in 1993, there have been few opportunities like this one. As described in an earlier blog entry, the strain Gateway City districts are under has increased dramatically in recent years. This opening should not be lost.