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Overview of Charter Authorizing and Anticipated Schedule for 2015 - 2016

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
October 9, 2015


Between now and March 2016, 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.

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 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 71 Commonwealth charter schools and 10 Horace Mann charter schools in operation, serving more than 41,800 students (see the updated Charter School Fact Sheet Download Excel Document).

Commonwealth charter schools are governed by boards of trustees, 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 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.

More recently, the Board at its meeting on September 22, 2015, voted to adopt a very narrow revision to 603 CMR 1.00, that specifies the method for calculating the list of school districts that perform in the lowest 10% on statewide assessments, for purposes of the charter school statute. The revision allows the calculation for the lowest 10% to be based upon data available at the start of the charter application cycle. This provides school districts and charter applicants with timely information for better planning.

Board's Responsibilities

As the sole charter school authorizer in Massachusetts, the Board is responsible for awarding charters for terms of five years; approving major amendments to charters including, but not limited to, changes in the districts specified in a school's charter, maximum student enrollment, and grade span; approving 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.

Commissioner's Responsibilities

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 authorize the Commissioner, as well as the Board, to impose or to remove conditions on a charter for specific reasons. In practice, the Commissioner notifies the Board before taking any action about conditions, and if the situation is serious enough to warrant probation with conditions, that decision rests with the Board. Pursuant to the regulations at 603 CMR 1.10(2), the Commissioner is also responsible for granting 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, in February 2013, 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.

Charter School Access/Equity and Other Initiatives

In addition to the ongoing work related to charter authorizing actions, the Department continues to advance priorities related to access and equity and cross-sector collaboration. 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 summarized in memoranda to the Board on October 10, 2014 and June 12, 2015.

This year, the Department will engage charter schools in a data-based conversation focused on student discipline practices, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. In addition, the Department continues to disseminate the sustainable use of redesigned school models, such as expanded learning time, and promising practices, including, but not limited to, early literacy teaching strategies and standards based instruction, in order to close the proficiency gap, particularly in Boston and Gateway Cities1. This work will feature the dissemination work of many charter schools through the Commonwealth and will continue to support successful school models and practices that are prominent in the charter sector. We will also explore additional opportunities for collaboration between district and charter public schools.

Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2015-2016

Attached for your information is the Tentative Schedule of Charter School Items for October 2015 through March 2016, 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.


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.


Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2015-2016;
Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Charter Amendment Requests Pending Board Action (Grades, or Maximum Enrollment);
Download PDF Document  Download Word Document
Charter Renewals that May Require Board Approval


Last Updated: October 13, 2015
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