The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Statement on Charter Schools
The board's statutory obligations with respect to evaluating charter school applications are clear: we are to approve those schools that meet the educational standards established by law and regulation. These standards for approval are focused on the quality of the school design and the competence of the founding team. In practice, this board and this department have applied very high standards to the approval of new charters; indeed we are considered to have the highest standards of any state in the nation. For that reason, we have approved fewer charters each year than are allowed by law.
There is nothing in statute or regulation that directs or authorizes us to consider whether the local school district is facing possible budget cuts or whether there is local opposition to charter schools. The regulations do require charter school applicants to demonstrate local support for their schools, but only to provide evidence that the school will meet its enrollment projections, not to show that it could win a popularity contest.
Outside of the approval process, the law does take into account the potential fiscal cost to a district when parents choose to send their children to charter schools. Specifically, the law allows the board to grant no more than 72 Commonwealth charters statewide, which is equivalent about 4 percent of the total number of public schools. The law also caps the amount of money that can be transferred from any district's Chapter 70 allocation to 9 percent of that district's total school budget.
In short, our rigorous application process ensures that charter school growth is gradual, while the existing statutory caps-at both the state and district level-ensure that charter schools will not decimate district budgets. Having said that, the Governor is in the middle of preparing his House 1 budget submission. As part of that process, the administration is taking another look at how the state finances public education-including charter schools-through Chapter 70 and the foundation formula. The basis of this review is to ensure fairness in the allocation of educational resources.
But, potential finance reforms aside, let's step back and remember the bigger picture. First, charter schools are public schools in every sense of the word-the only difference is they are governed by a board of trustees, instead of a school committee. As a result, when a charter school opens in a community, that community does not lose a single dime of revenue for public education. Second, the revenues that charter schools receive depend entirely on the free choices of parents. If local district schools are meeting parental expectations, then district budgets will be unaffected, since Chapter 70 funds are transferred to charter schools only on the basis of actual enrollment. Finally, although we have seen gains in student achievement over the past several years as education reform has taken hold, we still have a long way to go to meet our aspirations. Regardless of our present fiscal situation, we must continue to press forward with our reform efforts on all fronts-charter schools, included.
Many of the critics who say we should abandon charter schools until revenues turn around are the same people who argued for abandoning charter schools when revenues were flush. It is also the same tactic we are seeing on MCAS-long-time opponents of statewide standards and assessments are proposing that we suspend testing during the budget crisis. In both cases, I'm sorry to say that the state's fiscal situation is being used by some-although certainly not all-as little more than a convenient excuse for undermining reform and restoring the status quo. This is a dangerous course that, if successful, could undermine both reform and state funding.
This board and this governor are making every effort to ensure that the state lives up to its financial commitment to public education. That does not mean that every account can be fully funded at previous levels. But it does mean that our core responsibilities will be met, as long as our decade-old reform continues to move forward. The greatest risk to preserving the state's financial commitment to public education is not charter schools or MCAS; it is the abandonment of reform.
In closing, I feel obliged to comment on the charges that have been leveled against me personally, with regard to my prior relationship with Pioneer Institute. As you all know, before joining the administration almost 2 years ago, I was executive director of Pioneer, which includes the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center. During my last year at Pioneer, the resource center launched a fellowship program for aspiring charter school founders. I remained an advisor to the center through March of 2002. As a result of that relationship, I recused myself from last February's vote on new charters. I severed all ties with Pioneer following that vote in order to ensure there would be no appearance of a conflict of interest going forward. Last fall, I was asked to contact an acquaintance of mine in Western Massachusetts, in order to facilitate a conversation with one of the resource center's fellows, who is applying for a charter in North Adams. I made the call, but I made no endorsement of the application or the prospective founder. I did not recommend that my acquaintance agree to a meeting, I only stated that if he was interested in learning more, I would pass along his contact information.
Over the last several weeks, my past relationship with Pioneer and my 2-minute phone call have become fodder for a mini-controversy. Let me be clear about my position. Although I regret the fact that my phone call has left some observers with the impression that I have manipulated the chartering process, the fact remains that I have done absolutely nothing to influence the department's evaluation of charter applications. Moreover, I have no preconceptions or biases regarding individual applications going into next month's vote.