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Charter School Authorizing Activities - Recommendations from Charter School Committee

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
October 14, 2011


We will shortly be entering the busiest period of the year for the Board's charter school authorizing activities. This memorandum summarizes the statutory framework for charter schools and the Board's responsibilities as the state's charter authorizer. It also presents again, for further discussion and vote, the recommendations made in June 2011 by the Board's Charter School Committee. These recommendations are intended to help balance the extensive time commitment required for charter authorizing activities with the Board's many other policy responsibilities.

The Statutory Framework for Charter Schools

Charter schools were first introduced to Massachusetts as part of the 1993 education reform law. Major changes to the charter school statute were enacted in January 2010 as part of the achievement gap legislation. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of traditional school districts. States with charter school programs employ one or more of a variety of charter authorizers, including local school districts, municipal governments, universities, non-profit organizations, or state education agencies. In Massachusetts, the Board is the sole charter authorizing body.

We have two types of charter schools in Massachusetts: Commonwealth schools and Horace Mann schools. Commonwealth schools are completely independent of local districts, can draw students from many districts, and are funded by tuition payments from the sending districts. The charter school statute provides for partial reimbursement to school districts of the tuition payments.1 Horace Mann schools are also independent schools, but they have a closer relationship with the local district. The local school committee, and in some cases the local teachers' union, must approve their establishment; the district allocates equitable funding for the school's budget; and typically the district provides some central administrative services. There are currently 62 Commonwealth charter schools and 10 Horace Mann charter schools in operation, serving more than 30,000 students.

The 2010 achievement gap legislation raised the limits on the number of students who could attend a Commonwealth charter school from any particular district. The higher cap applies only to districts in the bottom ten percent of the state in academic performance, and when it is fully phased in after a seven-year transition period, it will effectively double the number of seats available in those districts.

As the charter authorizer, the Board is responsible for awarding charters for terms of five years; approving major amendments to charters, including changes in school size, grade levels, and location; and monitoring the performance of each school. Schools that perform well can have their charters renewed for subsequent five-year terms. When deficiencies are noted, the Board has a range of actions it can take, including imposing conditions on a charter; placing a school on probation; and non-renewal or revocation of a school's charter. These decisions have significant impacts on the charter schools and the students and families they serve, and they can also have a significant financial impact on local districts. As a result, the Board's deliberations on these matters must be done with great diligence and with careful attention to due process requirements.

The majority of the Board's charter authorizing actions each year take place between November and February. Attached for your information is the Schedule of Charter Authorizing Agenda Items, November 2011-February 2012.

The Charter School Office

The Charter School Office is the unit within the Department that provides staff support to the Commissioner and the Board with respect to charter authorizing actions. Marlon Davis, our new Director of Charter Schools, Innovation, and Redesign will manage not only the charter school program but also our work on innovation schools, extended learning time, and other school redesign efforts. This consolidation will provide a single point of contact within the Department for educators interested in exploring alternative models for school design.

The increasing number of charter schools will require us to devote additional staff resources to our authorizing function over the next several years. The lack of dedicated funding for program administration and oversight remains a major obstacle. Currently the office is funded from a combination of the Department's main administrative account, our district accountability appropriation, and federal grants. Given the growing size and visibility of this program, its impact on sending districts, the need to ensure high quality in all of our authorizing decisions, and the likelihood of federal funding cuts, we will need to continue our discussion with the Administration, the Legislature, and the charter school community on how best to fund these activities.

Update on New Charter School Applications

In this year's application cycle for new charters, seven prospectuses were submitted in August 2011. Based on the review of these prospectuses by our review teams, including both in-house and outside experts, I invited all seven of the proposed schools to submit final applications. I will make recommendations to you for the award of new charters from this group in February 2012.

The statute requires the Board to hold a public hearing in each city or town where a charter school has been proposed, with at least one Board member attending each hearing. As we have done in the past, we will ask for two Board members to sign up for each hearing, so that backup is available in the event of an unexpected last minute absence. The members who attend each hearing will report back to the full Board when the final applications are discussed next February. I will be in contact with each of you to set up the hearing assignments as soon as the schedule is finalized.

Recommendations from the Board's Charter School Committee

Last spring, the Board's Charter School Committee studied the issue of how to manage the increasing workload related to charter school authorizing activities. Committee chair Gerald Chertavian, joined by committee members Maura Banta, Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, Michael D'Ortenzio Jr., and Jim DiTullio (representing Secretary Reville), presented the findings and recommendations at the June 28, 2011, Board meeting. The committee observed that Massachusetts has a national reputation for a very high quality authorizing process that produces a high proportion of successful schools. At the same time, it was noted that the amount of Board time required for authorizing work sometimes seems out of proportion to the number of students served by charter schools.

The committee offered the following six recommendations:

  1. Maintain the current statutory framework, with the Board as the sole charter authorizer in the state.

    Given the size of our state and the limits on charter school enrollment, the committee felt that a multiple-authorizer structure was not likely to be more efficient and that quality might suffer. Active involvement by the Board also provides a valuable connection between charters and districts. The committee suggested that the focus for now should be on incremental improvements to help the Board better manage its time.

  2. Delegate additional authorizing decisions to the Commissioner.

    The committee noted that the current delegation authority, including decisions for straightforward renewals, some charter amendments, and loan approvals, has worked very well, and it recommended adding a delegation for renewals with conditions. Under the delegation protocol we have used, Board members will continue to be notified in advance of the Commissioner's decision and will still have the option of requesting that it be considered by the full Board.

    All new charter approvals; probation, revocation, and non-renewal decisions; and amendments affecting a school's size or location will continue to come before the full Board.

  3. Establish an on-going Board Charter School Committee.

    The primary responsibility for the committee would be to provide an in-depth review of any recommendations by the Commissioner that could lead to the closing of a school, either through non-renewal or revocation. These are high stakes, and often controversial, decisions that profoundly affect students, families, school staff, and the host district. A permanent committee would provide a forum for all stakeholders to present their concerns and would also provide an independent, in-depth review of the Commissioner's recommendation. The final decision would still be made by the full Board, but that decision would be informed by the committee's review.

    The committee would have the added responsibility of reviewing the Department's charter school policies and procedures annually, as a quality control over the authorizing process.

    It was proposed that committee membership should be rotated each year so that the extra time commitment required would be manageable.

  4. Eliminate unnecessary duplication in public hearings.

    The committee noted that dedicated public hearings are already held throughout the state for new charter applications, and that the proposal for an on-going Board Charter School Committee would provide an appropriate forum for stakeholder feedback on non-renewal and revocation decisions. The committee suggested that eliminating the need for public comment on these topics at regular Board business meetings would free up additional time for Board discussions.

  5. Plan extra meeting time in February of each year.

    The committee noted that the Board's February meeting each year typically had a large agenda of charter school authorizing actions, including the award of new charters and renewals of and amendments to existing charters. The committee suggested reserving additional time for this meeting, using either a Monday evening session or an extended Tuesday session.

  6. Continue to advocate for adequate funding for the Department's charter school office.

    The committee noted that our authorizing model relies heavily on the charter school office serving as staff to the Commissioner and the Board, and that the charter school office currently lacks dedicated funding and does not have sufficient capacity to handle a significant increase in workload.

    The Board's request for dedicated funding in the FY12 budget was supported by the House but opposed by the Senate. I will be recommending that the Board renew this request in its FY13 budget proposal.

I concur with all of the committee's recommendations. I believe they will be useful in helping to maintain our high quality authorizing process while also helping to better manage the Board's time and workload. A motion for your consideration is attached.

Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson; Director of Charter Schools, Innovation, and Redesign Marlon Davis; and Deputy General Counsel Kristin McIntosh will be available during the meeting to answer any questions that you might have.


Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Schedule of Charter Authorizing Agenda Items, November 2011-February 2012


Last Updated: October 21, 2011
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