As Boston opened its last allowable charter school on Monday and other communities bump up against limits, state lawmakers could be willing to lift the cap in some districts, a top lawmaker who helps steer education policy said Thursday.
Advocates hoping to lift all charter school limits statewide are unlikely to see that happen, but a more modest lift could be in the works, Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, told the News Service.
“I think there are underperforming districts that have reached the cap, Boston and Holyoke, that kind of change I think is more likely than a total cap lift. Some modest change is possible,” Peisch said. “I don’t want to say we are definitely going to do it.”
Currently, Boston, Holyoke, Chelsea, North Adams and Greenfield are frozen. Other cities with room for one more new charter are Lowell, Lawrence, Somerville, Everett, Randolph, Salem, Fitchburg, Gardner, Webster and Southbridge, according to the Charter School Association.
Peisch said she has heard from her colleagues a willingness to lift caps in certain cities, with two cities – Boston and Holyoke – being looked at closely.
Running out of room at charter schools is not a pressing issue in most communities, Peisch said, pointing to the 2010 Achievement Gap Act that allowed more charter schools to open around the state and gave traditional public schools more options to be innovative.
The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association would rather see the limits eased in more communities, arguing there is pent-up demand. Teachers unions oppose adding more public charter schools to the education mix.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this month posted data that showed 40,376 students on waiting lists for charter schools, a drop from earlier reports that showed 52,583 students on the lists compiled separately from individual schools. The number went down after DESE eliminated duplicates – students who were on waiting lists at more than one school.
Deputy Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson said the waiting list information, even after eliminating duplicates, is not a “gold standard” for data. Many people put their children on waiting lists, but do not take themselves off once they find a spot somewhere else.
Education officials think it would be premature to lift caps statewide, Wulfson said. There are still many communities with charter school seats available under the 2010 Achievement Act, he said.
“The commissioner has encouraged charter operators to go into some of these other districts and not just focus on Boston, but go to Chicopee and New Bedford,” Wulfson said.
The numbers do point to a need to revisit the caps, with several communities hitting their limit or on the verge, according to Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.
“We always knew there were duplicates. We always acknowledged there were duplicates,” Slowey said. “Charter opponents and unions were claiming our seats were wildly over-inflated. I think this shows they weren’t wildly over-inflated. Forty-thousand is a huge number statewide. Seventeen-thousand in Boston is a huge number.”
“We have used up all those extra seats now in Boston and several other communities. It is time to take a look at lifting the cap again,” Slowey said.
Peisch said instead of easing caps statewide, she would rather see charter schools move into communities where there is still room or places where they have traditionally shied away from.
“I think lifting the cap is not the only way to improve the learning experience for more students. My goal, frankly, is to figure out what is the best way to give the most kids access to a high-quality education,” Peisch said. “I think it is possible some change to current law may be part of the solution, but it is not the only solution.
“We could lift the caps tomorrow and we would still have 40,000 kids on the waiting list. We need to be focused on much more comprehensive solutions rather than just charter schools,” she said. “I see them as a piece of the solution, but not the entire solution.”
Charter school advocates argue that opening more schools in places that still have room does not help parents with children in struggling school districts.
“What are you going to tell the parents in Chelsea and Holyoke and Boston? You are going to have to wait until we fill up every seat in those other communities . . . ” Slowey said.
One bill advocates are pushing would increase access to charter schools along with allowing school administrators to have more flexibility in turnaround plans at underperforming schools. The legislation (S 235), filed by Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), would allow unlimited Horace Mann in-district public charter schools to be established in the lowest 10 percent performing school districts, without approval of the local teachers union. It would also remove a statewide cap of 48 Horace Mann Charter Schools, in-district facilities subject to approval by local school committees.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner said there are things traditional public schools can learn from charter schools, but added the state should be investing in regular district schools first. “We don’t believe taking more money away from districts is going to benefit the vast number of children,” Toner said.
Toner said his organization and school superintendents are working with lawmakers to craft legislation that would give “Level 3” performing schools tools for rapid turnaround, before they hit the lowest level of performance “Level 4.” He could not provide details because he said it was still in the draft stages, and no one has committed to it yet.
Thomas Gosnell, president of the Massachusetts chapter of American Federation of Teachers, said increasing the number of charter schools would not be good for the majority of students in the state.
“One of the reasons is the students who are affected most, in terms of lost money, are poor kids, English language learners, kids with special needs,” Gosnell said. “When a kid goes off to a charter, the school district loses state aid and local money that is spent on that student. This may not mean any reduction in the cost for the school system.”
It impacts the services traditional public schools can offer, Gosnell said.
“One of the reasons we also oppose it is the urban school systems have a substantial number of English language learners, and they are terribly disadvantaged when a school system loses resources,” he said.