Sue, vote, legislate? Charter schools’ newest challenge

Printed from:

Charter school proponents, including the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance are considering whether to move forward with a statewide ballot initiative to lift the cap on public charter schools.

Currently, more than 30,000 Massachusetts students attend charter schools, about 3 percent of the total student population. Massachusetts law, however, limits the number of charter schools to 120, and tens of thousands of students who want to attend charters are unable to do so because of limited space.

Last month, Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education, announced that Boston can add hundreds of new charter school seats for the 2015-2016 school year.

Under current law, low-performing districts like Boston can spend a maximum of 18 percent of “net school spending” on charter school tuition.

Many education experts had assumed that Boston already offered the maximum number of seats allowed under the state imposed cap.  But spending for Boston’s traditional schools has rapidly outpaced that of the city’s charter schools, allowing the city to add up to 668 seats next school year.

Although charter school proponents welcome the increase, they argue that it is insufficient to meet the demand.  Approximately 18,000 Boston students currently are on charter school wait lists.  They argue that charter schools offer a necessary alternative for parents of children trapped in traditional schools that are failing.

In support of their position, charter school supporters point to a recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.  In the Stanford study, Boston charter school students from every racial and ethnic sub-group outperformed their district school counterparts.

Moreover, academic growth in both English and Math was significantly higher among charter school students than among similarly-situated peers in traditional public school.

Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman does not dispute the study’s findings but says that the results are predictable because charter schools “cherry-pick their students.”  Although charter school students are selected at random by lottery, Stutman says there is a degree of self-selection in the applicant pool, and that kids who are harder to reach and harder to teach often do not even apply.

“How else do you explain a random distribution of students where none of the ELL kids go to the closest charter school? There has to be an explanation for that.”

The Boston Teachers Union and the Massachusetts Teachers Association oppose lifting the charter school cap because the measure would divert money from traditional public schools.  Stutman estimated that next year alone charter schools will cost traditional Boston schools almost $113 million.

“People tell me that kids leaving the district saves the school department money but that’s not exactly true,” said Stutman.

“Public schools still have to pay for fixed expenses.  It’s not like Johnny and his 21 friends all up and leave from the same class and we can just close that one class and reassign the teacher. It’s spread out and random. And you don’t save money on heat and infrastructure because one kid leaves one room.”

In addition to the possible state-wide ballot measure contemplated by the MCPSA,  several prominent Boston attorneys are preparing a lawsuit seeking removal of the state-imposed cap.   Attorneys Michael B. Keating, William F. Lee, and Paul F. Ware, Jr. plan to file the case on behalf of children who, even with the additional 668 new seats, do not receive spots in the lottery. The lawyers will argue that the state-imposed cap violates the right of every Massachusetts child to “an adequate education.”

Sources familiar with the planned lawsuit suggest that the case will become moot if voters approve a ballot question in favor of lifting the state cap.   Since the outcome of any such initiative is, of course, unknown, the lawyers are moving forward with plans to file the case within the next month.

Many charter school advocates favor this two-pronged strategy, in which the ballot initiative and the lawsuit proceed simultaneously on separate tracks.

But Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute says that, although he supports lifting the cap on charter schools, he would prefer to see the cap lifted by the state legislature.

“The nuances of policy are best dealt with in a legislative process,”  Stergios told the NewBostonPost, because legislatures can address regulatory aspects of policy that a straight “yes” or “no” vote on a ballot question cannot.

Stergios explained that the planned lawsuit was born out of  frustration with failed legislative attempts to address the matter.  Last year, legislation that would have increased the number of Massachusetts charter schools failed on Beacon Hill.

Governor Charlie Baker, who made raising the cap a key part of his campaign for governor, told the Boston Globe last week that he would support a ballot measure to increase the number of charter schools, although he too would prefer to see the legislature take action.

Supporters of the ballot initiative need to file a request with the state by August 5 if they hope to place the measure on the ballot in 2016.

[This article was compiled from staff and wire reports.  Political reporter Evan Lips contributed research for this story.]