By Senate President Stan Rosenberg
Thank you for welcoming me to the Blue Mass Group community. I look forward to keeping you posted on the work we are doing in the Senate, and my own work as Senate President. We were very pleased last week to finish the work we did with the House to file the opiates bill which has now been signed into law. The Senate is working on a number of bills, and I’m going to start my first post on Blue Mass Group with some background on one many are watching with great interest: charter schools.
The discussion on charter schools has taken on new urgency with a question on the ballot this year on whether to raise the cap and allow the creation of more charter schools. That discussion has been condensed into three word summations on two sides: Raise the Cap and Keep the Cap. But both supporters of charter schools and supporters of traditional public schools deserve a whole lot more. When the Massachusetts Senate began to look at the issue, it was clear that no three words could sum up the debate on charter schools. Massachusetts has a 23-year-old law on the books that began with the best of intentions – to allow for innovation in public education by creating schools which are not bound by traditions, practices, and restrictions which can, for some students, create a less than optimal learning environment. We have heard concerns from both sides: charter school parents and supporters who see all the positives and want more children to benefit from them, and parents and others who are concerned that the current law does not make sure that all children get a great education no matter which school they attend. The Massachusetts Senate agreed to look at the issues as fully as the children in our schools deserve, to look at what the current law does right and what the current law neglects, to look beyond either lifting or keeping the cap, and to have a debate on charter school reform. Though this view also deserves much more than three words, it can be summed up with these: Fix the Law.
We have learned a lot about charter schools in the last 20 years, not just in Massachusetts but across the country. We now know what works in charters and what does not. The issues we need to look at may seem complicated and contribute to an over-simplification of the arguments, but they don’t have to. It’s not complicated. All Massachusetts children should go to the best schools for them. While some children thrive in a traditional public school setting, other children are thriving in their charter schools. But we do a disservice to the truth when we only focus on district schools not meeting student needs. We cannot ignore the reality that some children who go into charter schools with high hopes and dreams they deserve to see fulfilled, leave with disappointment, frustration, and a sense of failure.
It’s time to fix the law. Massachusetts children who attend charter schools should benefit from what the over 20 years of knowledge we have gained in Massachusetts and across the country have shown us, and children who attend traditional public schools should not be put at a disadvantage when classmates leave to attend a charter school. Let’s get to some specifics.
Governance, Transparency and Accountability
One of the most promising movements in American governance today is transparency. It’s why the Senate worked so hard to pass a good public records reform bill. Our education system will only improve the more we know about what goes on there. School governance should be representative and transparent. Taxpayers need every assurance that they will know how their money is being spent.
Admissions and Retention
One huge distinction between traditional public schools and charter schools is admissions and retention. Traditional public schools must and do accept all students, regardless of the school calendar, the student’s ability, income, language skills, parental involvement, test scores, or any special needs. Charter schools are simply not as open as they should be, given their public funds, and, whether charters admit students by lottery or not, the results are sometimes unfair. We have heard concerns from parents with children who are on wait lists year after year. We have also heard concerns from parents about charter schools “weeding out” students with low test scores or behavioral issues, sometimes stemming from a lack of pediatric mental health services. When it comes to admitting and retaining students, Massachusetts charter schools should be on equal footing with traditional public schools.
We must first do no harm, and avoid all discipline practices which hurt children and can, in the worst case scenario, contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. In Massachusetts, 9 out of the 10 schools with the highest out-of-school suspension rates are charters. At the same time, we are sensitive to the frustration of parents with children in schools where disruptive students can take away valuable learning time for others. Students in traditional public schools have a right to due process if they are suspended, but many charter school students are not. Discipline policies in both traditional public schools and charter schools must be fair, and that includes protection of due process rights for every student.
Finance and Funding
Parents of traditional public school students are frustrated when the funding formula for charters means the students who stay are put at a disadvantage. Likewise, charter school parents who see a good learning environment for their children do not want their own children to lose out. Funding must be equitable, and work as well for district schools as it does for charter schools. All schools which receive public financing, also known as taxpayer dollars, must use those funds in the most efficient way, with transparency and accountability every step of the way.
These are some of the critical issues the Massachusetts Senate is looking at as we debate charter school reform. The goal is to make all our schools as good as they can be. Every child who attends a charter school should benefit from everything we have learned in the last 20 years. Traditional public schools will be better off when we have a funding formula that does not put them at a disadvantage. Charter schools will be better off when everyone has assurances that charter schools are operating with accountability, transparency, and adherence to best practices that provide our children with the very best a charter school can offer. Members of the Massachusetts Senate want to set the bar high, and make sure that all children in public schools, whether they attend a charter school or a traditional public school, get the best education we can provide. I agree with my colleagues.
So whether the cap is ultimately raised or not, there is one thing we cannot afford to miss the chance to do: Fix the Law.
Follow me on Twitter @SenStan