Thursday, November 6, 2014

The story behind the Brockton charter school waiver

The MTA is asking the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to deny a waiver request that could allow the New Heights Charter School to open in Brockton this year. If the charter application is allowed to go forward, the MTA will once again join the Brockton Education Association and the Brockton Public Schools, as well as many parents and elected officials in Brockton, in asking the board to deny the application.

Background. Earlier this year, BESE adopted policies to bring the charter authorization process in line with the 2010 Achievement Gap Act. That law emphasizes three key policies relevant to this debate:

·                     DESE must take student growth (i.e., MCAS student growth percentiles), not just achievement (i.e., absolute score levels on the MCAS), into consideration in school accountability ratings.

·                     DESE must use a similar approach for calculating which districts have student performance in the bottom 10 percent.

·                     DESE staff determined that the first two applicants in any year have to be in districts whose students were in the bottom 10 percent.

Why include “growth”? The argument for including growth measures was that achievement scores are closely correlated with socioeconomic status. To put it simply, on average, poor children don’t do as well as more affluent children on standardized tests. Districts with low-income students argued that they shouldn’t be penalized simply for educating poor children; they should be given some relief from burdensome mandates if their student growth rates are strong.

How do charter schools hurt these districts? One “penalty” most districts want to avoid is being forced to accept and pay for a charter school against the will of a majority of the elected officials and taxpayers in a community. The negative impacts of a charter school include:

·         Financial: After an initial reimbursement period, the charter school drains money from district schools.
·         Uneven playing field: Most charter schools use enrollment practices that keep them from serving as many special needs students, English language learners and low-income students as the sending districts.
·         Undermines local control: Once a charter is authorized by the state, decisions about how children will be educated there are taken away from local elected officials and are given to an unelected board, with oversight by state officials.

In short, when a Commonwealth charter school comes to town, districts have to serve a higher-need population with fewer resources.

DESE adopts new formula. DESE implemented a new achievement-plus-growth formula for school accountability purposes in 2011, initially choosing a ratio of 80 percent achievement to 20 percent growth. This year, DESE began the process of taking the same approach in calculating the bottom 10 percent of districts for purposes of meeting the new charter school requirements. DESE determined that the ratio should be the same for both school accountability and for determining the bottom 10 percent of districts, and revisited what that ratio should be. In the course of that debate, some argued that growth should be given even more weight, such as a 70/30 split. Others, including leaders of the charter school industry, argued that the calculation should be based 100 percent on achievement. After much debate, BESE approved a revised split of 75/25.

2014 charter applicants affected. Meanwhile, the charter application process was moving forward on a separate track and DESE advanced just two applications: one for the New Heights Charter School in Brockton and the other for a regional school to be based in Fitchburg. In early October, DESE staff realized that neither Brockton nor, collectively, the Fitchburg regional districts were in the bottom 10 percent. Their growth scores elevated them out of that pool. (Indeed, they would have been out of the bottom 10 percent based on the 80/20 split as well as the 75/25 split that was ultimately adopted.) DESE staff told the applicants they couldn’t move forward this year because the first two of any new charters approved in a given year must be located in districts in the bottom 10 percent.

Waivers filed. Both applicants filed for a waiver, saying they should be allowed to proceed. The Fitchburg applicant subsequently followed a different route, changing the makeup of the districts to be included in the regional pool to create a new configuration of districts that falls into the bottom 10 percent. With that change, the Fitchburg applicants were told they could proceed and the waiver request was dropped. The Brockton applicant is proceeding with the waiver request.

Hearing set. On Oct. 30, DESE set a date of Nov. 5 for a hearing on the New Heights Charter School waiver. The MTA is opposing that request based on a belief that the intent of the Legislature was to disfavor locating charter schools in districts, such as Brockton, that have worked very hard to provide their students with a high-quality education even in the face of high poverty and limited school resources and that are, in fact, showing improvement. If the application is allowed to go forward, the MTA will join the BEA and others in publicizing the many innovative and effective programs Brockton has implemented, and will show how those efforts would be undermined by locating a charter school in that community.

Produced by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, November 3, 2014

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