Baker, Peyser laud charter schools amid push for expansion

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BOSTON – Recognizing two Boston area charter schools named as finalists for a $80,000 prize on Tuesday, Education Secretary James Peyser said that charter schools in Massachusetts have a “tremendous impact” on the course of education reform in the state.

“From pilot schools to innovation schools, extended learning time to high-dosage tutoring, school-based managements and empowerment zones, when you put it all together, charter schools are not only a great option for families that desperately need more and better educational opportunities, they are also one of the key drivers of system-wide performance and improvement,” Peyser said during a State House ceremony announcing Boston’s Match Charter School and the Community Charter School of Cambridge as finalists for the Pozen Prize for Charter Schools.

Peyser spoke at the ceremony along with Gov. Charlie Baker and representatives from the Boston Foundation, the two finalist schools, and past winners Brooke Charter Schools and Boston Preparatory Charter Public School.

Baker, who has filed legislation seeking to allow the authorization of up to 12 new charter schools per year, spoke in support of raising the cap on charter schools for the second time since Friday, when he joined charter proponents for the launch of a new information campaign.

“Our schools overall, for the most part, are as good as any in the country, and I’ve said that many times,” Baker said after Tuesday’s ceremony. “And people should be enormously pleased by the success of the two rounds of education reform that we’ve done, but the gap between low-income students, mostly from communities of color, and everybody else is as big in Massachusetts as it is anywhere else in the country, and charter schools have proven over a very long period of time that they’re a big part of the answer.”

According to the Boston Foundation, which hosts the prize funded by donor Robert Pozen, the event was held with Baker at the State House to “raise awareness for charter performance in the context of efforts to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts.” The prize will be awarded to one of the finalists by June in recognition of “long-term academic excellence.”

With Baker’s bill and a similar ballot question both seeking to authorize more charter schools in Massachusetts, a debate over charter schools has divided the state’s education community. While proponents describe charter schools as a way to ensure disadvantaged students receive a high-quality education, opponents argue that they divert resources away from district schools that are required to serve all students who enroll.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, in an interview on Boston Herald radio on Tuesday, said the small groups of senators tasked with developing a charter reform package that could pass that branch was a “few weeks away from having something we could start sharing” with the full Senate membership and the public.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there were 81 charter schools operating in Massachusetts during the 2015 to 2016 school year. Of those, 10 are known as Horace Mann charters, which require the approval of local school committees. The other 71, called Commonwealth charters, do not require local approval. Both types are managed by boards of trustees and function independently of the district where they are located.

Current state law allows up to 48 Horace Mann charter schools and 72 Commonwealth charters. Commonwealth charters do not count toward the cap if they are awarded to certain providers in districts with the lowest 10 percent of student performance. Fifty-six of the existing 71 Commonwealth charters count toward the cap, according to DESE.

“Charter school critics often suggest that as the charter sector gets bigger, district schools, almost by definition, get weaker,” Peyser said, “The facts however suggest otherwise. From 2003 to 2013, charter school enrollment in Boston grew by at least 50 percent. During the same period BPS’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress improved by an average of more than 12 points, twice the national average. The bottom line is we need more great schools wherever we can get them, and the more great schools we have the better the entire system will be.”

Also on Tuesday, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester announced that he would ask the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve the opening of two new charter schools and five expansions.

Asked if the state should continue to authorize more charter schools until there are enough seats for every student on waitlists or if there is an ideal number of the schools for Massachusetts, Baker said, “We should at least be willing to give 12 schools a year the opportunity to expand.”

“For me the real issue here is I don’t want to have the expansion take place at a rate that you lose the quality that’s been so fundamental to the success of the schools, but there’s still a pretty rigorous process they have to go through to get approved in the first place, and there’s a rigorous process they have to go through to keep their charters, and I think Massachusetts has pretty much set the balance in the right place, but we do need to continue to provide parents and their families in underperforming school districts with this option and opportunity,” Baker said.

Written by Katie Lannan