March 14, 2014

SABIS charter school in Holyoke advocates lifting state caps on Massachusetts charter schools

Gloria Urbina’s daughter, Anya Torres, is in seventh grade at Holyoke Community Charter School, and Urbina wants her to stay through high school. Urbina likes the school’s uniforms, the feeling of community, the leadership training, and the attitude of teachers.

Holyoke Community students Mariah C. Santiago and Ashley E. DeJesus
“They tell kids every day you’re expected to do your best, to dream big,” Urbina said. “It’s a positive environment. They work hard.”

Today, the school only goes until eighth grade. School Director Sonia Correa-Pope said the school wants to expand, but is stymied by the state charter school cap, which limits the school to 702 students. It would need to add another 200 to 250 students to open a high school, Correa-Pope said.

Correa-Pope is part of a coalition of charter school advocates who are asking the legislature to lift the cap for underperforming school districts, like Holyoke. She points out that students at Holyoke Community Charter School, including subgroups of Latino students, low-income students, and English language learners, outperformed Holyoke public school students on statewide standardized tests in 2013.

“We want children to graduate from our school, and from there we want to track students at a college level and make sure they’re graduating college,” Correa-Pope said.

Charter schools are allowed to have more flexibility with curriculum, length of the school day, teacher pay and hiring than typical public schools. They are tuition-free and draw from the general population of a school district, with admission generally by a lottery system. The money the state would pay to the public school to educate that student is paid to the charter school, although the school district is still reimbursed for part of the cost of that student.

The charter school movement got a boost in 2010 when the legislature increased the number of charter schools in lower-performing districts. Overall, for the 2013-2014 school year, there were 35,300 students enrolled in 81 charter schools, with 53,500 on the waiting list, according to the state Department of Education.

Currently, a low-performing district cannot spend more than 18 percent of its school budget on charter schools. (Other districts cannot spend more than 10 percent.) The proposed bills, H. 425, sponsored by Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat, and S. 235, sponsored by Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat, would remove the existing cap on charter schools in school districts performing in the lowest 10 percent. The bill would also make it easier for charter schools to get approval in low-performing districts and would remove schools in those districts from counting toward a statewide cap, which limits the state to 72 charter schools.

In Western Massachusetts, Holyoke and Greenfield are classified as low-performing districts that cannot have any more charters under the cap, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association. Holyoke currently has two charter schools - Holyoke Community Charter and Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School. Greenfield has Four Rivers Charter Public.

Springfield and Chicopee are also in the lowest performing 10 percent of districts, and each has two charters still available under the cap, according to the Association. Springfield currently has four charter schools - Baystate Academy Charter Public School, Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, Sabis International Charter and Veritas Preparatory Charter School. Another one, Springfield Preparatory Charter School, plans to open in 2015. Chicopee has the Hampden Charter School of Science.

The bill would also affect regular district schools. Massachusetts schools are ranked from level one, the highest-performing, to level five, the lowest-performing. The bill would give additional flexibility to some level three schools to take actions such as lengthening the school day, dismissing poorly performing teachers or administrators and hiring without regard to seniority.

Proponents of the bill argue that if there is a desire for more charter schools, and the schools have good results, there is no reason not to expand them. “We shouldn’t be putting a cap on success,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation and a leader in the pro-charter school coalition. “How can we possibly justify putting arbitrary limits on educational strategies that are working well?”

The cap has a particularly big impact in Boston, where student demand far exceeds space in charter schools. Holmes, the bill’s sponsor, said charter schools can help improve existing racial inequities by providing students with more choices. Holmes said in the area where he lives, in Mattapan, the neighborhood is 92 percent black or Latino, and there is a single level two school and no level one schools. “That begins to tell you why this legislation is so important,” he said.

Critics of the bill, including teachers’ unions, argue that charter schools take money from the state’s public schools.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said lifting the cap “would drain more resources away from regular public schools.” Toner said many of the most motivated teachers and parents leave regular schools for charter schools. In addition, district money is taken from the public schools, but those schools still have to operate the same number of classrooms.

“If the charter schools are doing something that’s a help for students, that’s working and replicable, we should be doing it in our regular district schools rather than exporting education to charter schools,” Toner said.

Superintendent of Springfield Schools Daniel Warwick said while charter schools offer parents greater educational choices, the cost is high for public schools. “Lifting the cap would create a huge problem and exacerbate the difficult budget issues we already face,” Warwick said. He said Springfield spends nearly $40 million annually to fund charter and school choice programs. “Those are resources that we’d rather spend within our schools on the children whose parents have entrusted us with their education and care,” Warwick said. “Unfortunately, the reverse is true and we’re forced to make cuts in our schools to account for the millions of dollars we have to pay out for charter schools and School Choice.”

Not all charter schools have had exemplary results. Since 1994, according to the Department of Education, four charter schools had their charters revoked; eight voluntarily surrendered their charters after opening; and two have not renewed their charters, which last for five years. In 2010, the state revoked the charter of the Robert M. Hughes Academy in Springfield after a cheating scandal on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Springfield’s New Leadership Charter School closed in 2013 after failing to improve its academic, financial and management performance and being told that a charter renewal was unlikely.

The legislation is currently pending in the Joint Committee on Education. The committee has until March 19 to refer the legislation to the full House and Senate. If the committee does not act by then, the bill is unlikely to pass this session.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and committee co-chair, could not say Wednesday whether the bill would be released from the committee. “We are working hard to get to yes on giving more room for charter operators that are doing really well to expand,” Chang-Diaz said. “We want to do so without taking tools out of the toolbox of district schools that are showing great promise.”

Committee co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, said she is hopeful the bill will be reported out. “We just have a few relatively small details to work out,” she said Wednesday.

Peisch said she is generally supportive of the bill. “I think the bill strikes a good balance,” she said. “It provides some more flexibility for district schools while at the same time hopefully allowing some of the charter schools that have had some real success to be able to serve more students.”(Click here to read complete article at MassLive.)


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