Backed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, charter school advocates in Massachusetts are engaged in a contentious, all-out effort to expand the presence of charter schools in a state that has for years kept strict limits on the numbers of publicly funded, but independently operated schools.
Gov. Baker’s proposed legislation to raise the existing cap on the number of charter schools comes on the heels of a lawsuit and ballot initiative, both announced this summer, that are all aimed at dialing back what advocates say are too-restrictive limits on charter school growth in the state.
“I think this is the first time we’ve seen a state throw all three of these strategies out there at once to try to get a policy changed,” said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Charter advocates ramped up efforts across multiple fronts after a bill to raise the cap failed to make it out of the state legislature last year.
Although capping the number of new charter schools that can open in a given year is not uncommon practice—20 states plus the District of Columbia have such policies—Ziebarth said Massachusetts’ law is one of the most restrictive.
Aside from a flat cap of 120 charters statewide, there are additional barriers. Most notably, there are limits on how much of a school district’s budget can go to charters—it can’t exceed 9 percent in most districts. However, that cap is slowly being notched up to 18 percent by 2017 in the lowest-performing districts based on state assessment results.
Even though there are about 80 charters across Massachusetts—40 charter schools shy of hitting the statewide cap—some areas have already reached their regional limits. Among them is Boston, where with just under 30 campuses, the city has already reached the allotted number of charters that can open independently of the school district.
“In many large urban communities, particularly Boston, we have reached the cap,” said Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. “We have 37,000 students on the waitlists across Massachusetts, and 13,000 on our waitlists just in Boston.”
Those numbers are fueling a sense of urgency among charter advocates to raise the cap, and they’re hoping a full court press will transfer some of that urgency to state lawmakers, said Kenen.
Both the bill and ballot initiative, which was kicked off in August, would allow 12 new schools to open, or existing ones to expand, each year beyond the current statewide cap, while concentrating growth in the lowest-performing districts.
Supporters of the ballot initiative have until early December to collect over 64,000 signatures to put the question before voters on the November 2016 ballot.
Meanwhile, lawyers from three prominent Boston law firms are pursuing another route. They filed a lawsuit in September on behalf of five Boston students who claim the cap is blocking them from getting an adequate education. With a limited number of seats available under the cap, slots are awarded by lottery and the plaintiffs were unable to get into a charter.
But there is also well-organized opposition to the push to raise charter caps, spearheaded by the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
The MTA is throwing its support behind a separate piece of legislation that would place a three-year moratorium on new charter schools in the state.
“Let’s put a moratorium on this and let’s actually have a real conversation about a number of questions,” MTA President Barbara Madeloni said, pointing to common criticisms that charter schools don’t serve enough students with disabilities or English-language learners.
A civil rights complaint filed in 2011 claimed that Massachusetts charter schools overall served a much smaller share of students with limited English proficiency compared to regular district schools.
Meanwhile, the head of the teachers’ union in Boston—the city that’s become in many ways the epicenter of the debate—predicts these efforts are shaping up to attract a significant amount of out-of-state money to sway close public opinion, especially on the ballot initiative.
“You know, and I know, that money goes a long way in these matters” said Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Although a majority of people surveyed in a 2014 Boston Globe poll said they support keeping the current cap on charters, it’s not by a wide margin—47 percent of participants said they supported the limits while 43 percent opposed them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Full-Court Press Underway to Lift Cap on Charters in Massachusetts