Charter School Bill Passed in MA House; Debate Rages
Friday, May 23, 2014
House Bill 4091, which was labeled as “An Act Relative to Improving Student Achievement,” was passed on Wednesday night with a vote of 114-35 by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and now moves on to the Senate.
“The purpose of this bill is to increase the opportunity for more children in underperforming schools to have easier access to a higher quality education,” said Alice Peisch, the Representative that filed the bill. “I would like to underscore that this bill provides a variety of different options for the students of Massachusetts.”
The bill proposes that the cap on charter schools is lifted, allowing for more charter schools in the lowest performing 10-percent of school districts, increasing the cap on charter school tuition from 18 to 23-percent of a school district’s spending by the year 2022.
Bad for Worcester?
Tracy Novick, a member of the Worcester School Committee, is one of the many who has shown opposition to this bill. A day before the vote took place, she had sent a letter out to all of the local representatives, urging them to vote no on the bill, saying that the bill is “bad for Worcester.”
“There is nothing in this bill that benefits public education,” said Novick. “There are multiple things going on with this bill, most notably that it lifts the cap on charter schools which haven’t lived up to their expectations. While the cap is getting most of the attention, there are other provisions that could be seen as anti-public education.”
Another provision that Novick is worried about is that under this new bill the “challenge” designation that the Commissioner would be able to give to level four underperforming schools throughout the state would also be able to be applied to level three schools. This designation would force schools to undertake one of four federally funded redesign models in an attempt to improve student achievement.
“I kept reading this bill when it was first released hoping to see something in there that would sweeten the deal but unfortunately, I don’t see anything like that in this bill,” said Novick. “That was something that was very surprising to me. Ultimately, I don’t see this bill as something that is amendable.”
Providing Alternative Education
People may be worried that charter schools are beginning to take over urban areas and cherry pick the best and least challenged students away from public schools, but those involved with charter schools say that they are there to offer an alternative form of education to students who need it.
According to Marc Kenan, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, students are not adequately being served by the current choices that they have throughout Massachusetts.
“There are thousands of students across Massachusetts that are stuck in low performing schools,” said Kenan. “Those students and families desperately need more public school choices. This bill is a great way to allow more options to students.”
Kenan points out that students at charter schools often perform at a higher level than their neighboring public schools. Abbey Kelley Foster Charter Public School, for example, has a graduation rate of 92-percent compared to the Worcester public school average of 73.4-percent.
Whether concerned of finances or anything else related to charter schools, Kenan believes that people should stop viewing charter schools as a competition and start viewing them as alternative form of public education.
“Charter schools are also public schools so this isn’t taking any money from public education,” said Kenan. “We think that charter schools are critically important for the learning and growth of the children of the Commonwealth.”
Having more charter schools in a given district creates more competition for funding, something that is already pretty scarce in places like Worcester. O’Connell believes that rather than taking away from other districts, the state should look into funding charter schools in different ways.
“The entire school should pay for charter schools,” said O’Connell. “I think that before this cap is lifted, the state really needs to look at whether or not they can adequately fund an increase of charter schools. Right now the burden is falling on urban school districts.”
O’Connell hopes that the state looks into alternative funding methods like Chapter 78 funding, in hopes that the burden is alleviated from urban districts. While not condemning charter schools, he believes that an increased amount of them could become problematic for the funding of public schools moving forward.
“I think that some people see charter schools as a way to get out of the public school district,” said O’Connell. “What a lot of people have to look at is how charter schools can affect the most vulnerable students. I feel like many of the charter schools have a more selective model – not accepting as many special needs children, which ultimately presents more challenges for public schools.”
Related Slideshow: Central Mass Schools with the Highest Graduation Rates
Non-grad completers: Students that have successfully completed school according to local requirements, but whose MCAS test scores (scores lower than 220) prevent them from receiving an official diploma.
Students in cohort: Number of students eligible to graduate in 2013.
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