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Massachusetts Department of Education Charter School Office
Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2005–06 school year)
|First year of operation||Number of staff||Total number of schools||Number of students||Total number of school closures|
|1993||10||57||21,706||9 (including charters granted but not opened)|
Massachusetts State Charter Law: http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/71-89.htm
In 1996, three years after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted its charter school law, the state legislature shifted the state's sole authorizing authority from the Governor's Executive Office of Education to the State Department of Education. The Charter School office moved once again a few years later, this time to an established, larger office within the Massachusetts Department of Education—the Office of School Finance. The state commissioner for education made this move in part to give the Charter School office more institutional stability, according to Jeff Wulfson, the associate commissioner who currently oversees this office.
Wulfson recalls that at the time of this last move there was a real desire among charter advocates in the State Department of Education "to move away from charter schools being start-up and experimental, something different that might or might not be here for the long term, and really send a message that says charter schools are part of the landscape now. They are public schools like any other schools, and we don't necessarily need to have them sitting apart. We want to start integrating their activities and the department's activities with respect to them."
Staff members in the Charter School Office see this move as positive. Their position in the office of school finance provides ready access to other resources within the department, including financial and legal expertise. Staff members also have more opportunities within the department to advocate for charter schools, and they have the support of Wulfson, a key department official who has ongoing contact with the larger education community in Massachusetts.
According to staff members, there are several advantages to being the sole authorizing entity in Massachusetts. Mary Street, the director of the Charter School Office, believes that "single authorizer states are bound to be more successful in many ways because there is a clear picture. We are able to give every school in the state the same information, the same clarification, the same point of contact." Cliff Chuang, the coordinator of research and finance within the Charter School Office, agrees, "Being a sole state agency authorizer has a lot of advantages because you have complete and absolute track of every charter school in the state. Data submitted by any public school is submitted by charter schools automatically, and we have access to all of it—the grant information, the tuition information— we have tabs on everything."
Access to student performance data has enabled the Charter School Office to closely monitor overall school performance and provide timely feedback to schools about what aspects of their programs need improvement (e.g., low student performance in particular grade levels or particular subjects). In general, the academic performance of Massachusetts' charter schools has been strong. A recently released study commissioned by the state examined the test scores of 52 charter schools in existence from 2001 through 2005.24 According to this report, about 60 percent of the charter school students performed about the same as their peers in regular schools on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams in English and math, while 30 percent performed "significantly higher." About 10 percent of the charter schools performed worse than the sending districts.* The data from Boston, the state's largest district, show that "Charter school students in Boston as a combined cohort have performed statistically significantly higher than students enrolled in the Boston Public Schools each year from 2001 through 2005 in both English language arts and mathematics, except there was no statistically significant difference in performance in English language arts in 2001."25
Having a rigorous monitoring process has enabled the Massachusetts office to withstand three legal challenges to its accountability system. In all three cases, the office recommended closure of a school because the school had not met the terms of its charter. In Massachusetts, state law dictates that charter schools meet three tests: 1) Is the academic program a success? 2) Is the organization viable? 3) Is the school faithful to the terms of its charter?26 In the case of Lynn Community Charter School in 2002 and Roxbury Charter High School in 2004, the Charter School Office determined that the answer to each of the questions was no. When the schools challenged the decision through an administrative hearing process, the Charter School Office's well-documented record of student performance data, annual reports, and site visits convinced the hearing officer who was in charge of ruling on their appeal to support the decision to close the schools.
While having a larger structure and support system behind the office can be an advantage, Chuang also notes that there are some disadvantages to working within a state department of education. "You definitely have to work within the state bureaucracy in order to do your job. And, as a subunit of a larger entity, you have much less control over operational decisions and budgetary decisions, and you report to a board that has competing priorities." The Charter School Office's funding is not a line item within the larger department, but rather a collection of funds from several sources, including state department administrative funds, federal special education funds, and federal charter school program grants.
Because these funds are not tied to the number of schools that the office oversees, the office's capacity is an ongoing issue as it continues to grow. For this reason, the Charter School Office is in the process of developing a five-year plan that documents how many applications, site visits, and renewals are anticipated over the next five years, so office leaders can make the case for additional staffing if necessary.
Unless there is a change in the law, the number of new charter school applicants will soon drop off significantly as the state approaches various limits on charter school growth, including a statewide cap on the overall number of charter schools. Since the original charter school law was enacted in 1993, the state has raised the charter school cap in Massachusetts twice. In 2006, the law allowed a total of 120 charters statewide, and there are 58 of those charters still available.
In addition to capping the overall number of charter schools allowed, Massachusetts' charter law includes other restrictions on growth, such as a provision that Commonwealth of Massachusetts charters cannot serve more than 4 percent of the state's public school population, and a provision that a school district's payments to charters cannot exceed 9 percent of the district's net school spending. For these reasons, the Massachusetts Board of Education cannot approve any more charter schools in approximately 150 of the state's 500 districts.
According to the state's charter law, once schools are approved, school leaders have one year to develop an accountability plan that lists the school's performance objectives and defines how progress toward those objectives will be measured. Schools are required to develop objectives in each area of accountability—academic success, organizational viability, and faithfulness to the terms of the charter. unlike some other authorizers, the Massachusetts Charter School Office does not prescribe one set of goals for all schools to meet. In order to meet obligations under No Child Left Behind, all charter schools are required to administer MCAS tests, but they also are encouraged to set specific goals that are appropriate to the school's unique program. The Charter School Office offers limited assistance to schools as they develop accountability plans.
In general, staff members do not provide technical assistance to the schools, partly because of their own capacity limitations, but also because they philosophically disagree with doing so. "We hold up a mirror, but the choices the schools make will always be their own," explains Street. The Charter School Office staff members are acutely aware of their responsibility both to respect schools' autonomy and to maintain the office's oversight integrity.
And yet, the Charter School Office staff members are keenly aware that even the strongest charter schools face an uphill battle because of the complexity of opening a school from scratch. For this reason, the Charter School office currently is engaged in a statewide conversation with other charter school advocates, such as the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, about how to establish a resource center that would strengthen the level of support available to charter schools at various stages of their development.
|Signs of Success: Massachusetts Department of Education Charter School Office|
* This study defined the comparison sending district for each charter school as follows: 1) For a charter school that is not regional, the school district in which it is located is its comparison sending district; 2) If 20 percent or more of a charter school’s population in 2004–05 came from one sending district, and there are at least 40 students in this group, then that district is designated as the comparison sending district.
* See note on page 75