Friday, April 1, 2016
Q and A: What does the Senate charter school bill do?

The Massachusetts Senate released a bill on Thursday that would overhaul the way charter schools are run and change the funding mechanism for charter and district schools. Here's a closer look at what the bill means for the debate over whether to expand access to charter schools.

What does the Senate bill do about the charter school cap?

The bill would eliminate the cap for charter schools that primarily serve the most high-risk students: those who dropped out of school and are returning; teenagers who are pregnant or parents; and homeless youth.

The bill includes a mechanism for lifting the cap in the lowest performing districts from 18 percent of school spending to 23 percent of school spending, at a rate of 0.5 percent per year. But that will only happen if lawmakers increase funding for regular district public schools at the same time.

The bill also gives districts the option to count Horace Mann charter schools and innovation schools toward the charter school cap. Those are schools that are run by districts, but with more flexibility than traditional public schools. This gives cities and towns local control over what form of non-traditional school they prefer. It also means that some cities and towns that have not yet hit the charter school cap could use Horace Mann or innovation schools to reach the cap, and effectively stop new charter schools from opening up.

How does the Senate bill change the charter school reimbursement formula?

Under current law, school districts get some reimbursement when a child from that district is sent to a charter school. A district is supposed to get 100 percent of the cost the first year a student leaves and 25 percent for the next five years. But the state has never fully funded those costs.

Under the Senate proposal, school districts would get 100 percent of the cost the first year, 50 percent the second year, and 25 percent the third year.

The proposal would also limit the school district's responsibility for paying for charter school transportation to 50 percent of the charter school's costs, if the schools have different start times. If a charter school has a longer school year than the district, the charter school would pay all of its transportation costs for those days.

Does the bill change the administration of charter schools?

Yes. The bill requires more transparency of charter school boards, greater board diversity, and the certification of charter school teachers. The bill guarantees that charter school teachers who choose to unionize receive comparable wages to unionized teachers in the district's public school system. The bill also changes the lottery system from an opt-in system to one that includes all students and lets them opt out.

Are advocates for both charter and district schools going to back the bill?

No. While several school officials tied to the public school community praised the bill, charter school advocates quickly criticized it. Charter school advocates say the bill does not do enough to lift the cap and will not get enough students off of an estimated 34,000-student waiting list.

How much money will the bill cost?

The bill would cost the state between $203 million and $212 million a year. The money would go toward updating the state's funding formula, the mechanism by which all schools receive funding. Charter schools will only get more money if district schools get more money.

What does Gov. Charlie Baker think of the bill?

He's not a fan. In a statement, Baker, who is a strong supporter of charter schools, said, "While I thank the Senate for their work, the proposal offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools and the new mandates for local spending in this proposal could place a further burden on taxpayers."

What happens next?

The bill will be voted on by the state Senate next week. If it passes, it will go to the House. Given the opposition, there is likely to be a fair amount of legislative debate and some reworking of the bill.

If the Legislature does not pass a bill, charter school advocates will put a question on the November 2016 ballot asking voters to approve allowing 12 new charter schools a year that are not subject to the cap.

If the Legislature does pass a bill, the charter school advocates can choose whether to go forward with the ballot question or withdraw it.