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Another Round of Education Reform in Massachusetts
February 2005
By Marc Kenen

More than a decade after a sweeping education reform law changed the face of public schooling in Massachusetts, education again tops the state's agenda. Republican Governor Mitt Romney laid out a new education reform plan in his State of the State Address, and Democratic leaders have made education reform a priority for this session. A Supreme Judicial Court ruling on education funding is imminent, and a coalition of business groups plans to fix 107 underperforming schools and raise state standards.

Such attention is warranted. Even after years of improved performance, children in cities like Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield have some of the state's lowest achievement scores. The public understands that new and innovative reforms are needed. So the common refrain by many education insiders--that more and more funding is needed--has been met by the public's demand for more fundamental reforms, including more charter public schools.

Across the state, charters are achieving success, particularly in hard-pressed urban settings. However, state law prohibits their expansion in many of the state's lowest performing districts. By law, no more than nine percent of a districtÕs school spending can be used for charter public schools per year. Once that ceiling is reached, no more charters can open in that district. Currently, 152 communities have reached the limit.

As the new legislative session gets underway, two proposals to increase the number of charter public schools in those low performing districts have been filed. One bill, filed on behalf of the Massachusetts Charter School Association by several Democratic legislative leaders, including the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on education, would raise the nine percent cap to 20 percent in school systems that scored in the bottom 10 percent on the state's standardized test (MCAS) two years in a row. In his recent budget proposal, Gov. Romney went one better and proposed that the cap be lifted entirely for systems in the bottom 10 percent for two years in a row.

The 19 districts that would be affected by raising the cap are not only the lowest performing in the state, they are also among the poorest. On average, 60 percent of the children are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs compared to a statewide average of 27 percent. In addition, over 53 percent of the children in these districts are minority, more than double the statewide average.

A recent Boston Globe analysis (Jan. 9, 2005) found that charter public schools are already improving educational outcomes for students in many of those low performing districts. The Globe studied test scores in eight of the state's largest and most troubled systems and found that on average 12 percent more charter public school students scored proficient or advanced on statewide assessments tests than district school students. In Lawrence, Springfield, New Bedford and Fall River, the margins were at or above 20 percentage points.

Our own MCAS analysis shows that excluding Boston's prestigious exam schools that have strict admissions policies, all five of the city's charter public high schools and four of the six charter public middle schools ranked in the top ten citywide. Some of our schools ranked among the highest scoring in the state, despite serving a disadvantaged student body. The convener of the business coalition focused on education reform called our best charter schools models for improving public education.

Still, teachers' unions, superintendents, and other traditional foes continue to oppose charter public schools. In each of the last three years, they have fought to impose a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools. The most recent effort would have even stopped the opening of five schools that had already been approved by the State Board of Education but had not yet opened. They have already filed dozens of anti-charter bills, even though their biggest argument--that charters drain funds from other public schools--has been weakened.

Just last fall, the charter public school funding formula was changed to reduce tuition payments from districts to charters by about eight percent. In addition, the state continues to reimburse districts for the money transferred to charters in a way that allows them to gradually adjust their budgets. Districts receive 100 percent reimbursement in the first year, 60 percent in the second, and 40 percent in the third.

Parents clearly want more choice. There are now more than 21,000 children enrolled in the state's 56 charter public schools and another 15,000 are on waitlists. In Boston alone, 5,000 students are enrolled in charters, but more than 6,100 are waiting for openings.

As Massachusetts tackles the next phase of education reform, the focus is increasingly on fixing chronically under-performing schools. Charter schools offer a proven track record of success in urban education and raising the caps on charter enrollment in these troubled districts should be an integral part of a strategy aimed at raising standards for all our children.

Marc Kenen is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association.

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