The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Charter School Authorizing Activities

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
October 12, 2012

Between now and next March, the 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 charter authorizer.

The Statutory Framework for Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of traditional school districts. States with charter school programs employ one or more of a variety of charter authorizers, including local school districts, municipal governments, universities, non-profit organizations, or state education agencies. In Massachusetts, the Board is the sole charter authorizing body. Charter schools were first introduced to Massachusetts as part of the 1993 education reform law. Major changes to the charter school statute were enacted in January 2010 as part of the achievement gap legislation.

We have two types of charter schools in Massachusetts: Commonwealth schools and Horace Mann schools. Commonwealth schools are completely independent of local districts, can draw students from many districts, and are funded by tuition payments from the sending districts. The charter school statute provides for partial reimbursement to school districts of the tuition payments. Horace Mann schools are also independent schools, but they have a closer relationship with the local district. The local school committee, and in some cases the local teachers' union, must approve their establishment; the district allocates equitable funding for the school's budget; and typically the district provides some central administrative services. There are currently 67 Commonwealth charter schools and 10 Horace Mann charter schools in operation, serving more than 33,000 students.

The 2010 Achievement Gap legislation raised the limits on the number of students who could attend a Commonwealth charter school from any particular district. The higher cap applies only to districts in the bottom ten percent of the state in academic performance, and when it is fully phased in after a seven-year transition period, it will effectively double the number of seats available in those districts.

As the charter authorizer, the Board is responsible for awarding charters for terms of five years; approving major amendments to charters, including changes in school size, grade levels, and location; and monitoring the performance of each school. Schools that perform well can have their charters 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 non-renewal or revocation of a school's charter. These decisions have significant impacts on the charter schools and the students and families they serve, and they can also have a significant financial impact on local districts. As a result, the Board's deliberations on these matters must be done with great diligence and with careful attention to due process requirements.

Tentative Board Schedule

In the information section of your briefing book is the Tentative Schedule of Charter Authorizing Agenda Items, for October 2012 through February 2013. On this month's agenda are requests from three schools for major amendments to their charters. Please see the separate memorandum regarding these requests and my accompanying recommendations.

Recognizing that charter school authorizing activities can take up a significant amount of the Board's time, the Board has delegated to me a number of the more routine authorizing decisions. An example of this is the memorandum elsewhere in your briefing materials reporting my approval, on your behalf, of three charter school contracts with an educational management organization (EMO).

The Charter School Office

The Charter School Office is the unit within the Department that provides staff support to the Commissioner and the Board with respect to charter authorizing actions. The office is currently without a permanent director, but I was pleased to announce recently that Cliff Chuang will be joining the Department right after Thanksgiving as our new Associate Commissioner for Charter Schools and School Redesign Programs. Cliff is currently the director of charter schools at the New York State Education Department; he previously worked here at DESE in both our charter school and school redesign offices.

The continually increasing number of charter schools will require us to devote additional staff resources to our authorizing function over the next several years. Currently the office is funded from a combination of the Department's main administrative account, our district accountability appropriation, and federal grants. Given the growing size and visibility of this program, its impact on sending districts, the need to ensure high quality in all of our authorizing decisions, and the likelihood of federal funding cuts, we will need to continue our discussion with the Administration, the Legislature, and the charter school community on how best to fund these activities.

Update on New Charter School Applications

In this year's application cycle for new charters, twenty-two prospectuses were submitted in August 2012. Based on a review of these prospectuses by our review teams, I invited the founding groups for twelve of the proposed schools to submit final applications.

The 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. As we have done in the past, we will ask for two Board members to sign up for each hearing, so that backup is available in the event of an unexpected last minute absence. The members who attend each hearing will report back to the full Board when the final applications are discussed next February. I will be in contact with each of you to set up the hearing assignments as soon as the schedule is finalized.

If you need any additional information regarding our charter school authorizing process, please contact me or Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson.