The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Charter Schools - Authorizing Activities for FY18

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Jeff Wulfson, Acting Commissioner
September 15, 2017

Between now and June 2018, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) will take a significant number of votes related to its statutory role as a charter school authorizer. Similar to prior 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 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:

to stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education;
to provide opportunities for innovative learning and assessments;
to provide parents and students with greater options in choosing schools within and outside their school districts;
to provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative, innovative methods of educational instruction and school structure and management;
to encourage performance-based educational programs;
to hold teachers and school administrators accountable for students' educational outcomes; and
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 9 Horace Mann charter schools in operation, serving more than 46,300 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 from the sending districts based upon the number of district students attending the school. The charter school statute 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. 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:

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 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:

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's Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign is the unit in the Center for Educational Options 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 to oversee the creation and sustainability of a variety of high quality options for public schools-including 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

In addition to the ongoing work related to charter authorizing actions, the Department administers a federal grant program of nearly $16 million for charter schools in Massachusetts. The federal government awarded the three-year grant to Massachusetts in September 2016. Grant funds are allocated to newly opening and significantly expanding charter schools and to charter schools disseminating and sharing their best practices with traditional district schools. The Department has already awarded grants to five newly opened schools and seven significantly expanding schools in fiscal year 2017. Additionally, in July 2017, the Department awarded $1.5 million to charter schools for dissemination activities. Dissemination grants are competitive; 17 charter schools applied for dissemination funds, and the Department awarded grants to seven of the applicants to work in partnerships with Level 3 and 4 schools and districts. The Department also continues to advance priorities related to access and equity. In spring 2013, the Department explicitly incorporated expectations regarding access and equity into the Charter School Performance Criteria and launched a variety of access and equity initiatives. These initiatives were summarized in memoranda to the Board dated October 10, 2014, and June 12, 2015. More recent initiatives include creating a framework to assess the performance of charter schools with alternative education programs, which typically serve overage, non-traditional students. The framework is an effort to recognize the unique challenges facing these charter schools and to assess their performance accurately while maintaining high standards. 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 Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and the Department's Office of Student and Family Support. Ten charter schools identified last summer continue to work with the Department's professional learning network with the goal of reducing the use of suspension.

Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2017-2018

Attached for your information is the Tentative Schedule of Charter School Items for September 2017 through June 2018, with information regarding requests for charter amendments that are pending and charter renewal decisions that may require Board approval. The tentative schedule will be updated as needed during the year.

Public Hearings on Charter Applications

The charter school statute requires the Board to hold public hearings in every city or town where a charter school proposes to locate, and also requires at least one Board member to attend every 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 Alison Bagg, Director of Charter School and School Redesign (781-338-3218); Cliff Chuang, Senior Associate Commissioner for Educational Options (781-338-3222); or me.


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Charter School Fact Sheet
Download Word Document
Tentative Schedule of Charter School Authorizing Agenda Items for 2017-2018
Charter Amendment Requests Pending Board Action
Charter Renewals