Contact: Jennifer Levitz
BOSTON—Massachusetts lawmakers are considering eliminating a cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the lowest-performing school districts, including here in the capital city.
While other states also have weighed lifting caps, charter advocates point to left-leaning Massachusetts as a somewhat unlikely model for the movement. "This demonstrates that charter schools are a viable reform," said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit aimed at advancing the movement. "If it can happen in Massachusetts, it can happen anywhere."
Charter schools receive public funding but, unlike public schools, employ mostly nonunion teachers and have autonomy in school districts, which allows them to set their own conditions, such as longer school days. They have long been embraced by Republicans for introducing choice in education, but have been assailed by some teacher unions and others as hurting traditional public schools.
The Massachusetts legislation to end the cap was proposed by Democrats, state Sen. Barry Finegold and Rep. Russell Holmes. It would abolish all caps on charter schools and charter-school spending in 29 low-performing school districts, including Boston.
The 107,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association is likely to oppose the bill, said union president Paul Toner. Under state law, schools' funding is linked to the number of attending students, so charter schools divert much-needed funds from traditional schools, he said.
While some say capping the number of charter schools controls the quality of education, others say the caps are arbitrary and limit opportunity. Nationally, about 20 states have laws limiting the expansion of charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform, a group that advocates for charter schools. Hawaii, Idaho and Missouri lifted caps last year.
Massachusetts' current limit on charter schools statewide is 120, with 76 now in operation. State law also caps districts' net school spending on charter tuition to 18% in underperforming districts and 9% in others. Statewide, charter groups say there are 45,000 applicants on waiting lists, though that number may include students who apply to multiple schools.
Mr. Finegold, the bill's sponsor and the son of public-school teachers, said his motivation sprung from conversations with parents in Lawrence, part of his district northwest of Boston, where the struggling school district was taken over by the state in 2011. The state has since brought in charter operators to run two low-performing schools, and parents told him, "we'd be out of here" had that not happened, Mr. Finegold said. "One thing I don't think people realize—charter schools are keeping a lot of the middle class in cities," he said.
A coalition of charter advocates, charitable leaders and business groups—including the Pioneer Institute, a free-market Boston think tank—are pushing for the bill. But it has plenty of critics. The popular liberal Massachusetts blog Blue Mass Group wrote recently that Mr. Finegold "throws away his political future," having "taken the lead for school privatization."
In the Democratic-controlled legislature, the prospects for the bill, which was only recently unveiled, aren't yet clear. Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat and supporter of charter schools, declined to comment on the legislation. His point person on the issue, Mitchell Chester, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he would consider raising the cap, but perhaps in three years. Massachusetts is now adding new charter schools "incrementally and in a way that makes sense," Mr. Chester said.
Because other states look to Massachusetts—where students overall routinely rank at the top of national and international tests—for lessons on academic achievement and innovation, the Bay State's policies on charter schools are being followed closely, former Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson told charter advocates gathered in Boston recently.
Nationally, charter schools are educating more than 2.3 million students in the 2012-13 school year, 275,000 more than last year, the largest single-year jump since the movement began 20 years ago, according to the National Alliance for Charter Schools.
More than 31,000 Massachusetts students attend charter schools, an increase of 20% in the past four years. Parents like Tori Willis, a widow who moved her 17-year-old son, Asante Sandiford, from a traditional Boston public school to City on a Hill charter school three years ago, are drawn to the focus on college preparation and manners. Asante must tuck in his shirt, and he shakes hands with the headmaster each day.
Unlike many other states, advocates say, Massachusetts' governance system designates state education officials as sole authorizers of independently run charter schools, overruling local mayors and unions.
"We set a high bar for what it takes to get a charter. We watch them closely, and we exit those charters that don't measure up," said Mr. Chester, adding that the state has had to close a few.
The majority of Massachusetts charter schools are high-performing, with many surpassing their districts in terms of student achievement, said Mr. Chester.
Massachusetts ranks its schools from Level One, the highest, to Level Five based on academic achievement, graduation and dropout rates. This year, 59% of charter schools in the state were Level One, compared with 31% of non-charter schools.
In a move being watched nationally, Massachusetts has begun enlisting its best charter-school operators to help turn around several struggling traditional public schools. Typically, charter operators open new schools from scratch, Mr. Chester said.
"If you can't use this state as a point for lifting the cap…I don't know what else you can use," said Ms. Rees, of the national charter-school alliance.
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A version of this article appeared March 11, 2013, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: New Front in Charter Schools.