Throughout the course of this session, many constituents have written to me asking my opinion about the expansion of charter schools. Most have expressed concerns over the impact that a charter expansion would have on public education in Massachusetts.

Recently the Senate took action on a bill related to this issue, and so I wanted, with this blog post, to send an update to those who have been interested and engaged on this issue. The Senate vote was 22 in favor and 13 opposed. I voted against the bill, and want to convey why.

At the outset, please know that I have been opposed to the increasing role of charter schools in public education, and therefore opposed to “lifting the cap” on charter schools. But, I do pride myself on keeping an open mind, and being open to information, data, and arguments on all issues. To this end, I have read, reviewed and listened on the issue of charter schools, and I have learned a great deal. Nonetheless, I find myself even more strongly opposed to lifting the cap, no matter the form or method utilized.

Wollaston Elementary School, Quincy

In early April, members of the Massachusetts State Senate were informed that a small working group of senators would the next day release legislation called the RISE (enhancing Reform, Innovation and Success in Education) Act. The sixty page bill, the product of intelligent and thoughtful legislators, was debated in the Senate on April 7th. The debate centered on the bill itself, on charter schools, and on the 52 amendments filed to the bill. The bill passed that same night, after a long debate, and with a split vote as indicated above.

While the RISE Act does in many ways seek to benefit all public school students, it was prompted first by the push of charter school advocates to increase the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. Quite simply, the question of how to expand charter schools, which educate approximately 4% of Massachusetts students, drove the agenda. I believe that comprehensive education reform should be driven not in response to charter school advocates, but rather by the needs of the traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of our students.

Also, while it is a serious effort to make charter schools more accountable, the RISE Act further legitimizes the concept of the expansion of charter schools without any consideration of the “end game”, i.e. if there are to be charter schools, what is the appropriate, desirable, educationally justified number of charter schools that best serves public education across the Commonwealth? The RISE Act leaves this question unanswered.

The RISE Act has some appeal in that it calls for funding the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which could increase funding for all public schools. However, it does so without a realistic, identifiable funding source. Also, while payments to traditional public schools for students lost to charter schools would be frontloaded under the RISE Act, there has been no analysis or modeling to predict and plan for the longer term impacts of such a funding system on either charter schools or traditional public schools.

The RISE Act, to address concerns about how charter schools presently select students, calls for a lottery selection system; however, the bill is unclear in how wait lists are established and how geographic preferences are applied, leaving too much room for charter schools to game the selection process. The result could be that charter schools choose easier to educate students and leave ELL, SPED students, and others with more challenging needs to the traditional public schools.

Under the RISE Act, new accountability standards for charter schools would be implemented, which I think are necessary, but the legislation fails to address the concerns of teachers, parents and administrators of the traditional public schools. Constantly, and repeatedly, they express to me that the burden of federal and state imposed mandates relative to curriculum, testing, teacher performance assessments, student achievement assessments, and licensing requirements, among others, leaves teachers with constrained ability to really teach. Charter school teachers, teaching 4% of public school students, are freed from many of these burdens and claim successful outcomes as a result, and yet those teaching 96% of the public school students are subject to, measured by and criticized for perceived less successful outcomes.

Finally, those who believe that charter schools are superior and prize worthy, must logically believe that traditional public schools are something less. Those who believe that charter schools should increase in number as the foundation budget increases, even if the result is still less funding than necessary to appropriately educate all students, tacitly place the burden of insufficient funding for traditional public schools disproportionately on those who lose in a lottery. I do not subscribe to such logic. Students in such a case are not treated equally. It’s not fair.

The focus of education reform should not be on lifting the number of charter schools and the creation of a two-tier school system. The focus of education reform should be the improvement of our traditional public schools. History has taught us in practice and in the courts – but perhaps not well enough – that where the state has undertaken the obligation of providing the opportunity of an education, it becomes a right, and that the right to an appropriate, quality education must be made available to all on equal terms.

I believe the RISE Act, while a thoughtful and well-intentioned effort that succeeds in some areas, falls short in others, and overall fails when measured by this standard. This is why I felt I needed to vote against this bill.