Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)

Charter Schools-Authorizing Activities for 2019-2020

To:Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:Jeffrey C. Riley, Commissioner
Date:October 18, 2019

Between now and June 2020, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) will take a number of votes related to its statutory role as a charter school authorizer. Similar to prior years, this memorandum summarizes the statutory framework for charter schools and the Board's responsibilities as the state's sole charter school authorizer and provides other related updates and a tentative schedule of charter school 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 have 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 education reform in 1993. The charter school statute is found at G.L. c. 71, § 89. The charter school statute specifies that the purposes of charter schools are:

(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 74 Commonwealth charter schools and 7 Horace Mann charter schools in operation, serving nearly 50,000 students. The updated Charter School Fact Sheet is attached to this memorandum for your convenience.

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 transferred from sending districts based upon the number of district students attending the school. The charter school statute provides a schedule for reimbursement to school districts for increases in 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. Typically, the district also provides some central administrative services pursuant to a memorandum of understanding negotiated with the charter school.

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 in charter school operations or academic outcomes, 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 and the Board to impose or to remove conditions on a charter for specific reasons. In practice, the Commissioner typically notifies the Board before taking any action related to conditions. If the situation is serious enough to warrant a Commissioner recommendation for 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 (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 provides Board members an option 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 to not 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 the districts specified in the school's charter.

Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's (Department) Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign is the unit within the Center for Educational Options that provides staff support to the Commissioner and the Board with respect to charter authorizing actions, innovation schools, virtual schools, educational collaboratives, 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 options for public schools-including, but not limited to, those that innovate in the areas of instructional practice, time, resources, and technology-to ensure that all students in the Commonwealth have equitable opportunities for success after high school.

Charter School Initiatives

Access and equity. The Department continues to advance priorities related to access and equity. Over the past year, the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign implemented its Charter School Performance Criteria, revised and finalized in the fall of 2018. The revisions to the Charter School Performance Criteria were made consistent with other Department efforts to address equity in schools and were based upon similar revisions to the Department's District Standards and Indicators.

Reducing student suspensions. The Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign continues to engage charter schools in data-based conversations focusing on student discipline practices. This work is done in conjunction with the Department's Office of Student and Family Support and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Eight charter schools identified last winter continue to work with the Department's professional learning network with the goal of reducing the use of suspension through a comprehensive action plan. During the 2018-2019 school year, the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign engaged in data-based communication and discussions, and offered a specific Planning for Success session for charter schools with disciplinary rates that were higher than statewide averages, but not identified as part of the Department's professional learning network, to assist them in thinking about alternatives to suspension. Additionally, the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign closely monitored the submissions of two schools whose charters were recently renewed with conditions requiring the schools to create action plans to reduce use of suspension and adopt strategies to improve school climate.

Sharing best practices. This fall, the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign will host a conference (Sharing for Success) during which charter schools, traditional public schools, expanded learning time schools, and other school models will disseminate their best practices. This conference will showcase the excellent work of Massachusetts public schools and fulfil the commissioner's statutory duty to "facilitate the dissemination of successful innovation programs of charter schools and provide technical assistance for other school districts to replicate such programs."

Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2019-2020

Attached for your information is the Tentative Schedule of Charter School Items for October 2019 through June 2020, including information about pending requests for charter amendments and charter renewal decisions that may require Board approval. The tentative schedule will be updated as needed during the year.

Renewals of Charters

The 2019-2020 year marks the 25th year of charter school operation in Massachusetts. Out of the 20 charter schools currently seeking renewal of their school charters, 14 have operated for 25 years. These 14 schools are requesting a fifth renewal of their charters. During the fall, Department staff will be collecting evidence from all 20 schools related to the statutory requirements for renewal. I will inform you of my intended renewal actions or recommendations during the winter.

One charter school that will not be seeking renewal is the Bentley Academy Horace Mann Charter School (Bentley) in Salem. In May 2019, near the end of the school's fourth year of operation, Bentley's board of trustees voted to not apply for renewal of its charter. When a charter school does not submit a renewal application, the school's charter "expires" at the end of the current term. Bentley will operate as a charter school until July 1, 2020. Bentley's board of trustees plans to ask the school committee in Salem to permit the school to become an innovation school. The Department will assist stakeholders as needed with this process.

Commitment to Growth of High Quality Charter Schools

Massachusetts has one of the most successful charter school sectors in the nation. Over our 25-year history of charter authorizing, Massachusetts has earned its reputation of holding charter applicants and schools seeking an expansion to a high standard for approval. Our standard relies on the approval criteria set forth in the charter school statute, regulations, and guidance, and sets an expectation that all new or expanding charter schools authorized by the Board will substantially meet the criteria and have a high likelihood of success.

For new schools, each applicant group must not only have a strong vision for a school but also exhibit the necessary capacity and planning to demonstrate faithfulness to its charter, academic program success, and organizational viability. The Department is committed to quality programming by both proven providers1 and groups who have yet to establish a track record of success. Charter schools that have earned proven provider status in the Commonwealth have done so over time; they did not originally open their doors as proven providers. I fully support the continued establishment and growth of high-quality charter school options by groups with a commitment to excellence and innovation in public education and the capacity to deliver on that promise.

In the summer of 2019, the Department received four proposals to establish a new Commonwealth charter school. The Department performed a review of all four prospectuses and based on the evidence compiled, I did not invite any of the groups to submit a final application this fall. My determination was based upon a review of each prospectus against the application criteria or, in the case of one resubmission, the requirements necessary for proven provider status. All applicant groups receive detailed feedback gathered during the review process and discuss this feedback with Department staff.

In addition to the prospectuses, the Department received a letter of intent from an applicant group seeking to establish a Horace Mann II charter school in partnership with the Pioneer Valley Regional School District in western Massachusetts. Horace Mann II applications can be submitted at any time and we may receive an application later this fall. The group is proposing to convert the Warwick Community School into a Horace Mann II charter school with school committee approval. I will keep Board members informed of any developments with this potential application.

The Department also received three requests from charters seeking to expand enrollment at existing Commonwealth and Horace Mann charter schools. When deciding whether to allow a school to amend its charter to expand, the Commissioner and Board consider evidence regarding the success of the school's academic program, its organizational viability, its faithfulness to the terms of its charter, and the availability of seats under current caps. As always, we will review the expansion requests according to the processes and criteria in the statute and regulations and ensure that our decisions meet our high standards for public education and charter authorizing.

***

If you have any questions regarding these matters or require additional information, please contact Alison Bagg, Director of Charter Schools and School Redesign (781-338-3218); Cliff Chuang, Senior Associate Commissioner for Educational Options (781-338-3222); or me.

Enclosures:

Download Excel Document
Charter School Fact Sheet
Download Word Document
Tentative Schedule of Charter School Items, October 2019–June 2020


1 The types of candidates eligible for proven provider status and the qualifications for proven provider are defined in 603 CMR 1.02 and 603 CMR 1.04(4). Any charter applicant or existing school seeking to serve districts that have performed on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test (MCAS) in the lowest 10 percent statewide for two consecutive previous years and where the 9 percent net school spending cap has been or will be exceeded must qualify as a proven provider. Qualifications include school performance similar to statewide averages on English Language Arts and mathematics MCAS tests over no less than 3 years for all students and at least one student subgroup.

 
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