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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Charter Schools - Authorizing Activities for 2014-2015

To:
Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date:
October 10, 2014

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Between now and March 2015, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) will be asked to take a significant number of votes related to its statutory role as a charter school authorizer. As I have done in past years, I am providing you with this memorandum summarizing the statutory framework for charter schools and the Board's responsibilities as the state's sole charter school authorizer, along with other related updates and a tentative schedule of charter school authorizing agenda items for the year. This information will also be discussed at an information session for the Board at 3:30 p.m. on October 20, 2014.

Legal Framework

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of traditional school districts. Across the nation, states with charter school programs employ one or more charter authorizers including local school districts, municipal governments, universities, non-profit organizations, and state education agencies. In Massachusetts, the Board is the sole charter authorizer of charter schools.

Charter schools were first introduced to Massachusetts as part of the 1993 education reform law and are currently governed by G.L. c. 71, § 89, the charter school statute. The charter school statute specifies the purposes of charter schools.

(i) to stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education; (ii) to provide opportunities for innovative learning and assessments; (iii) to provide parents and students with greater options in choosing schools within and outside their school districts; (iv) to provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative, innovative methods of educational instruction and school structure and management; (v) to encourage performance-based educational programs; (vi) to hold teachers and school administrators accountable for students' educational outcomes; and (vii) to provide models for replication in other public schools.

Massachusetts has two types of charter schools, Commonwealth and Horace Mann. There are currently 70 Commonwealth charter schools and 10 Horace Mann charter schools in operation, serving more than 35,000 students.

Commonwealth charter schools are completely independent of local districts, can draw students from many districts, and are funded by tuition payments from the sending districts based upon the number of district students attending the school. The charter school statute, however, also provides for partial reimbursement to school districts for tuition payments to Commonwealth charter schools.

Horace Mann charter schools also are governed by boards of trustees and operate independently of school committees. Horace Mann charter schools, however, have a closer relationship with the local district. The local school committee and, in some cases, the local teachers' union, must approve the establishment of Horace Mann charter schools; the district must equitably fund the school; and typically the district provides some central administrative services.

The Board, at its meeting on March 25, 2014, voted to adopt amendments to 603 CMR 1.00, the regulations for charter schools. The amendments, which became effective on April 11, 2014, were comprehensive and reflect the experience of the field and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) since the last regulatory revisions in 2010. The amendments aligned regulations with current guidance and policy and strengthened aspects of the charter school accountability system. These changes were intended to advance the goal of high quality authorizing and improving educational outcomes for all students attending charter schools throughout the Commonwealth.

Board's Responsibilities

As the sole charter school authorizer in Massachusetts, the Board is responsible for awarding charters for terms of five years; approving amendments to charters including, but not limited to, changes in the districts specified in a school's charter, maximum student enrollment, grade span, and contractual relationships with education management organizations; and determining whether charters should be 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 revoking or not renewing a school's charter. These decisions have significant impacts on charter schools and the students and families they serve, as well as the finances of local districts. As a result, the Board deliberates on these matters with diligence and thoughtful attention.

The Commissioner's Authority

The Commissioner is responsible for making recommendations to the Board and providing the Board with the information needed to make well-informed decisions. The regulations, as recently amended, also authorize the Commissioner to impose or to remove conditions on a charter and to approve certain amendments to charters. Pursuant to the regulations at 603 CMR 1.10(2), the Commissioner may grant the following amendments to the material terms of a school's charter:

  • School name;
  • Mission;
  • Governance or leadership structure;
  • Educational programs, curriculum models, or whole-school designs that are inconsistent with those specified in the school's charter;
  • Bylaws;
  • Membership of the board of trustees;
  • Memoranda of understanding for Horace Mann charter schools;
  • Schedules (e.g. length of school year, school week, or school day);
  • Accountability Plan;
  • Enrollment policy and application for admission;
  • Expulsion policy; and
  • Location of facilities, if such change involves relocating or expanding to another municipality.

At the recommendation of the Board's Charter School Committee, the Board also delegated to the Commissioner the authority to renew charters, including renewing charters with conditions, provided such renewals do not involve probation. This delegation requires the Commissioner to notify Board members in advance of intended actions and to permit Board members to request that the Commissioner place the matter before the full Board for discussion and action. As stated above, the Board continues to award new charters; to place a school on probation; to revoke or not to renew charters; to approve contractual relationships with education management organizations; and to grant charter amendments that change a school's grade span, maximum student enrollment, and districts specified in the school's charter.

Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign

The Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign is the unit within the Department that provides staff support to the Commissioner and the Board with respect to charter authorizing actions, innovation schools, expanded learning time, and other school redesign initiatives. The mission of the office is to support and oversee the creation and sustainability of a variety of high quality public school options-including those that innovate in the areas of instructional practice, time, resources, and technology-to ensure that all students in the Commonwealth have equitable access to a pathway to success after high school.

Update on Access and Equity Initiatives

The Department places a high value on access and equity with respect to charter schools, is committed to ensuring that all eligible students have access to seats in current and new charter schools, and expects charter schools to provide services in an equitable manner. In the spring of 2013, the Department explicitly incorporated expectations regarding access and equity within the Charter School Performance Criteria and launched a variety of access and equity initiatives which continue into this school year. The Department met with advocacy groups in the summer of 2013 and facilitated an Access and Equity Working Group of school leaders during the 2013-2014 school year, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), to inform these initiatives. Based upon this work, the Department has developed and implemented tools and oversight practices and has provided targeted guidance to the field, including:

  • Amending the charter school regulations (amendments adopted in March 2014) to require that all charter schools provide notice regarding the rights of students with disabilities and English language learners to be admitted to and to receive accommodations and support services at charter schools (see Charter Schools: Recruitment and Retention Plans), to require charter schools to set initial application deadlines to be after January 1 for the upcoming school year, to clarify backfill and recruitment and retention plan requirements, and to prohibit the rolling of waitlists from one year to the next;
  • Developing the Charter Analysis and Review Tool (CHART), which provides multi-school, multi-year demographic comparison data;
  • Conducting "Mystery Parent," a series of random and unannounced contacts with schools to verify that students with high levels of need are provided with equal and unfettered access to each school's application and enrollment process;
  • Enhancing our review of Recruitment and Retention plans based upon CHART and other data indicators and sharing a compendium of recruitment strategies Download PDF Document  Download MS WORD Document with charter schools;
  • Consistently including an access and equity component in the processes for site visits at charter schools and for reviewing amendment requests from schools seeking expansion;1 and
  • Publishing the Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2014-5: Charter School Responsibilities for Students with Disabilities Who May Need an Out-of-District Program - 603 CMR 28.10(6), developed in collaboration with the Department's Office of Special Education Planning and Policy, charter schools, and district schools.

In the summer of 2014, the Department also awarded a contract to MCPSA for 2014-15 to implement a project to help all charter schools build capacity to establish programs for low incidence/high need students with moderate to severe disabilities, and to support and to serve students with behavioral needs more effectively. The Department continues to work collaboratively with MCPSA and other stakeholders to improve outcomes for students with disabilities and other learning needs. The Department will provide periodic status reports on these efforts.

Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2014-2015

Attached for your information is the Tentative Schedule of Charter School Items for October 2014 through March 2015, with information regarding requests for charter amendments that are pending and charter renewal decisions that may require Board approval.

Reminder about Board Member Participation in Public Hearings for Charter Applications

The charter school 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. These hearings usually occur in November and December. As we have done in the past, we will ask for two Board members to volunteer for each hearing, so that backup is available in the event of an unexpected last-minute absence. The members who attend each hearing report back to the full Board when the final applications are discussed in February. I will be in contact with each of you regarding the hearings as soon as the schedule is finalized.

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If you have any questions regarding these matters or require additional information, please contact Cliff Chuang; Associate Commissioner (781-338-3222); Jeff Wulfson, Deputy Commissioner (781-338-6500); or me.

Attachments:

Download PDF Document  Download MS WORD Document
Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2014-2015
Download PDF Document  Download MS WORD Document
Charter Amendment Requests Pending Board Action (Grades, Enrollment, or Districts Served)
Download PDF Document  Download MS WORD Document
Charter Renewals that May Require Board Approval

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Last Updated: October 16, 2014
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