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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Statement of James A. Peyser Regarding Pending Charter School Applications
February 24, 2004

In all the controversy surrounding charter schools, what often gets lost is the underlying reason why these schools exist in the first place. To my mind it simply boils down to this: we have an urgent obligation to create more opportunities for students to achieve at high levels. One way to do this is through broad-based education reform, built on a foundation of rigorous academic standards, statewide assessments, and accountability for results. Another is to facilitate the establishment of new schools that aspire to excellence.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, there are several major districts around the country that have embraced charter schools as part of a comprehensive reform strategy. Places like New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Buffalo have all adopted charter-friendly policies designed to establish new schools as a means of accelerating their district-wide reform efforts.

These districts recognize that charter schools create opportunities for credible people with fresh ideas to enrich the entire public education system. To improve student outcomes we need to consistently attract new talent with a commitment to educational excellence. One way to do this is to remove obstacles that deter bright people from becoming teachers or school leaders within the existing system. Another way is to provide opportunities for such people to start new schools.

These districts also understand that charter schools can act as a stimulus for broader, more rapid change throughout the larger system of public education. Listen to the words of Joel Klein, New York City's schools chancellor, on the day he announced that district's plan to charter 50 new schools:

Today's announcement is a testament to our belief that there is more than one way to deliver high quality public education. Charter schools represent a tremendous opportunity to attract new resources to our public schools and to spur system-wide change. Charter schools also reflect the vision underlying the [district-wide] Children First reforms- that strong leadership, autonomy at the school level, and accountability for performance are key to giving our children the quality education they need and deserve.

The argument is often made that while charter schools may create good opportunities for some children, they damage the opportunities of others by draining resources from the local school system. The problem with this perspective is that it focuses on the school district, rather than the community.

To begin with, charter schools are public schools, which are open to every child in the community. Even after all these years, charter opponents continue to repeat the specious claim that charter schools are somehow not really public schools because they are not controlled by a local school committee. These critics are simply wrong. Charter schools are authorized by and accountable to a public entity, they are subject to virtually all the state and federal laws governing public education, and they must serve all students without discrimination.

Furthermore, while a district's overall budget might be reduced as a result of having fewer children attend its schools due to parental choice, charter schools invariably attract more resources to the community-both through additional public and private grants and through the state's $13 million reimbursement program for districts that lose students to charter schools.

In addition, the legislature has specifically addressed concerns that charter schools will present an excessive fiscal burden to local districts by placing a cap of nine percent on the total resources any district may lose as a result of charter school tuition payments.

Finally, this board is often accused of being too aggressive in its support of charter schools. The reality, however, is quite different. This board was one of the first charter authorizers in the country to revoke a charter for poor academic performance. Moreover, this board and this department have consistently set a high quality bar for approving new charters, so much so that we have typically awarded far fewer charters than allowed under state law-which itself is among the most restrictive in the country.

The bottom line for this board is quality, not quantity. We do not support charter schools for their own sake. We only support them when they further the cause of educational excellence.

Now, I need to change the subject somewhat and address concerns regarding potential conflicts of interest, specifically involving my connections to some of the charter applications before us today.

As you all know, I have been an active supporter of charter schools for over a decade. Consequently, I know many other people who are involved with charter schools, both in Massachusetts and around the country. Some of those people are involved with the applications being recommended by the Commissioner for our approval. I have not spoken with any of these people concerning their charter applications. Neither have I discussed the merits of any of these applications with the Commissioner or his staff during their evaluation process.

To ensure that I do not violate any of the state's ethics laws, I have sought the opinion of the state ethics commission on whether it would be appropriate for me to participate in today's votes. Based on the information I submitted to the commission, which detailed all my personal and professional relationships with the relevant applicants-no matter how indirect or distant-I have been informed that I may vote on all these applications as long as I provide the Governor with a full disclosure statement, which I have done. I would be happy to make this disclosure available to anyone who wants to see it.

Although my connections to the pending charter applications do not require me to abstain from any of today's votes, given the heightened controversy around this matter I intend to recuse myself from our deliberations on the proposed KIPP Academy Lynn Charter School to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.

Having said this, let me make one final point. There are those who suggest that my long-standing work on behalf of charter schools should disqualify me from voting on any matter affecting charter schools. Not only does this argument misread state ethics law, but if accepted, it would also set an untenable precedent that would preclude anyone with an active involvement in public education from being a full participant on the board of education. Therefore, I will continue to fulfill my obligations as a member of this board, in compliance with both the letter and spirit of state law.

Last Updated: February 26, 2004
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