Board of Ed. Opts Against Approving New Charters
BOSTON — This year's round of charter school applications came to an end on Tuesday, with no new charters granted.
By statute, charter approval requests come before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at its February meeting. Three groups submitted prospectuses for potential charter schools to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last August, and two of those -- Equity Lab Charter School in Lawrence and Massachusetts Wildflower Montessori Public Charter School: Haverhill -- were invited to submit full applications.
Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley told the board at its Tuesday meeting that the applicants behind Equity Lab withdrew their request on Jan. 31, before he reached his final decision, and that he was not recommending Wildflower Montessori for approval, citing concerns around governance, management and special education.
Riley said the Wildflower proposal had strong elements but did not "substantially meet our approval criteria."
"It's an unusual year for us in that no new charters are going forward," Riley said.
In a memo to the board, Riley wrote that Massachusetts has one of the strongest charter sectors in the country and that the state "has earned its reputation of holding charter applicants (as well as applicants for renewal or expansion of a charter) to a high standard for approval."
There are 82 charter schools in Massachusetts, serving more than 45,000 students, according to the Department of Elementary Education.
Charter schools are publicly funded and operate with more autonomy than traditional district schools. A ballot question that would have lifted the charter school enrollment cap failed in 2016, with 62 percent of voters opposing the cap lift.
Riley said he has received letters indicating some people believe the defeat of the ballot question stopped the charter process in Massachusetts entirely. "That is not the case," he said.
"The bottom line is that we want great seats at great schools for our kids," Riley said.
One of the main criticisms raised by opponents to the ballot question -- that charters can drain resources from district schools because a student's share of state funding follows them if they leave a district for a charter school -- bubbled up during Tuesday's meeting, as board members approved a 56-seat expansion request for Excel Academy Charter School in Chelsea.
Excel Academy, which has campuses in Chelsea and East Boston, has a current enrollment of 1,297 students in grades five through 12, and 1,089 students on a waiting list, according to board documents.
The board previously set a limit on Excel's Boston enrollment at 748 students, and the 56-seat increase approved Tuesday would not change that cap.
"The school's waitlist demonstrates sufficient Chelsea demand to support the proposed increase in enrollment," Riley wrote in his recommendation for approval. "Chelsea residents account for 10 percent, or 155 students, and 13 percent, or 204 students, of the school's waitlists in March 2017 and March 2018, respectively."
The expansion request was approved on a 7-4 vote, with board members Ed Doherty, Mary Ann Stewart and Margaret McKenna and Vice Chair James Morton opposed.
Morton, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, said he was "deeply troubled by the dilemma that I think we get placed in every time there's a charter proposal in front of us."
"We find ourselves in a position of diverting resources from one opportunity to another without ever really addressing the underlying issue, which is finding some other source of funding for charter schools so that we can have both our public school children getting what they need and our charter school children having an opportunity to attend charter schools that might be a Montessori school that addresses the way they particularly might learn," he said. "It's going to get pretty close to the moment where I vote against anything until we deal with that underlying issue, and I think that moment is today."
Chairman Paul Sagan said he did not think it would be appropriate if the board took the students who would be affected by the Excel expansion and "made them hostage" to broader questions around school funding, which he said are largely legislative issues the board is not "empowered to solve."
Lawmakers this session will have the opportunity to consider various education finance reform plans, including one offered by Gov. Charlie Baker that includes changes to how districts are reimbursed for charter tuition.
Riley also offered the board a brief update on the status of the Alma del Mar Charter School expansion in New Bedford. Last month, the board approved a plan that would allow Alma del Mar to open a new campus that would draw students from a neighborhood zone created by the New Bedford Public Schools instead of using a citywide lottery. The plan requires legislative approval before it can be implemented.
Riley said the education department is working with the "local partners" to help develop potential legislative language "which would be necessary to get across the finish line."
He said he is "optimistic" the required local approval for a memorandum of understanding and for the conveyance of New Bedford's former Kempton Elementary School facility to Alma del Mar would be secured before the board's March 26 meeting.