Mass. Officials Looking Anew at Privately Run Charter Schools

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Massachusetts officials are raising new questions about the state's growing contingent of privately managed charter schools.

The state inspector general's office has been meeting with education department officials and state lawmakers to determine if charter schools contracting with private management companies are required to adhere to state competitive-public-bidding laws.

"The question is whether or not charter schools are subject to the same procurement rules as regular schools," said Fran Brown, the first assistant inspector general. She added that, with no explicit exemption written on the books, her office has always considered charter schools subject to such laws.

The state board of education reviews and approves state charters for the publicly funded independent schools. The schools, which operate free of local school boards' control and do not have to adhere to most state education regulations, were first allowed under the Education Reform Act of 1993. Some 24 such schools are up and running in the state, and the state school board last month approved eight new charters--including four that are privately managed.

Bidding Practices

Under competitive-bidding laws, according to the inspector general's office, local school officials are required to solicit three price quotes for supplies and services between $1,000 and $10,000 and must advertise and solicit competitive sealed bids for any contract over $10,000. Charter school management contracts often amount to more than $100,000, according to the state. Officials choose bids based on price and how well the provider meets a particular need.

Ms. Brown would not speculate on whether or how officials' discussions could affect all nine of the Bay State's privately managed charter schools. Sabis Educational Systems Inc., Beacon Management Inc., the Edison Project, and Advantage Schools Inc. have opened or are planning to open charter schools in Massachusetts.

But Scott Hamilton, the state's deputy education commissioner, said it appears that public-bidding laws do not apply to charter schools.

"We suspect that the law at issue does not apply," he said. "Procurement is for municipal agencies. Charter schools are a state entity."

To err on the safe side, however, Mr. Hamilton is advising the newest charter schools to begin the bidding process.

In addition to the potential bidding problems, some charters have been singled out for potential conflicts of interest.

Advantage Schools, for example, a private company that will manage two charter schools scheduled to open in the fall, has been cited because its president, Steven F. Wilson, worked with former Republican Gov. William F. Weld to help write the state's charter school law.

One critic, state Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, introduced a bill last month that would bar for-profit companies from managing charter schools.

"The [charter school] system is not being monitored," said Sen. Pacheco, a Democrat. "The potential for corruption and abuse is there. We need to close the loophole that allows for-profit companies to run public schools."

Mr. Hamilton of the education department countered that Mr. Pacheco and other charter school naysayers "represent a rather vicious backlash against the stalwart support and success of charter schools from defenders of the status quo."

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