BOSTON-Today the Massachusetts Senate passed An Act Enhancing Reform, Innovation, and Success in Education (The RISE Act). The bill was crafted by a small working group of Senators appointed by Senate President Rosenberg in late January to work on bringing a bill to the floor of the Senate.
“This bill expands innovation for all schools and takes the lessons we have learned from 20 years of charter schools in Massachusetts and brings necessary reforms in admissions, funding, transparency, and governance, said Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst). “The stakes for students in our public school systems are too high to let the answers be decided by a ballot question which, though well intentioned, only addresses the less than 10% of students currently attending or seeking seats at charter schools. The remaining over 90% of students have just as much at stake.”
With a pending ballot question potentially on the ballot this November, the Senate bill casts a wide net, well beyond what the ballot question entails, on addressing the issue of charter schools. The bill focuses on transparency, admission and retention of students, funding, and the charter school cap.
The most public issue, and the main thrust behind the ballot question, is raising the current cap for the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. The cap currently is at 72 Commonwealth Charter schools and 48 Horace Mann charters schools; Horace Mann charter schools are approved by the local school committee in which the charter operates, by the local collective bargaining agent, and approved by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
The bill allows for a cap lift but puts district schools and charter schools on a level playing field. The bill maintains the current statewide charter school cap but increases net school spending for charters from 18% to 23% for the lowest performing districts over the next ten years, allowing for an increase in the number of charter school seats in these districts. Beginning in fiscal year 2019, in an effort to align the funding priorities of both traditional public schools and charter schools, this increase in seats will be tied to increases in Chapter 70 investments recommended by the Foundation Budget Review Commission over a seven year schedule.
The bill eliminates the cap on charter schools that specifically serve at-risk students. This will allow charter schools that serve at-risk students to immediately begin working to address the needs of this population.
The bill also seeks reforms beyond charter schools for the betterment of the over 90% of public school students in Massachusetts not currently enrolled or seeking seats in charter schools. For districts at risk of becoming underperforming, the bill provides more flexibility and autonomy for district leaders to introduce more innovation and changes to classrooms.
Additionally, to reward and incentivize in-district innovation, Horace Mann and Innovation schools may be counted towards the net school spending cap but are not limited by it, which allows for even more seats in innovative classrooms.
“The RISE Act includes some of the most powerful levers for closing the achievement gap the Commonwealth has seen in over a decade, so I'm glad it's advancing to the next step in this multi-step process,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Education. “We'll continue to fight for the needs of 100% of students--the 96% in district schools, the 4% in charters, and no matter what waiting list you're on.”
To create more transparency around the operations of charter schools, the bill requires public disclosure by charter schools of their finances, policies, contracts and board meetings.
During debate the Senate adopted an amendment requiring charter schools to abide by the same procurement requirements under state law that traditional public schools are required to follow.
The Senate also adopted an amendment to increase data reporting by DESE to include English language learners and special education students. Amendments were also adopted to encourage the usage of teachers’ aides or other paraprofessionals to provide educational support, including but not limited to tutoring, instructional assistance and parental involvement activities in priority and underperforming schools.
The bill includes requiring increased communication between charter schools and local school districts before submitting a charter school proposal to DESE. In addition, DESE would be required to reform how they handle the charter school waitlist and evaluate a proposed charter’s impact on district students as part of the application process.
“Quality education for all students is the benchmark we must reach and the standard by which we, as a Commonwealth, must be measured. The RISE Act presents us with the unique opportunity to expand access to and accountability of charter schools for those who need them, while ensuring that all school districts have the tools they need to fairly and adequately fund innovative education for 100% of our students. This bill isn’t necessary for just the 4% of students in charter schools, or the 96% in public schools—it’s necessary for all of us,” said Senator Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland) Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “With the passage of the RISE Act, we will build stronger, more resilient schools, which will create stronger, more resilient children. Resilient children grow up to be active contributors to a productive Commonwealth, ensuring our success far into the future. I look forward to renewing the legislature’s commitment to education reform when this bill is signed into law.”
The bill requires a paradigm shift for how charters admit students by implementing a district wide lottery, with an opt-out provision for parents, or unified enrollment system to all students of each district. Currently, charter school lotteries are only open to those students who apply. The bill would require that all students in a district be eligible for charter schools and traditional public schools, effectively eliminating the current lottery system.
“I am pleased to have worked with my senate colleagues, both in the working group and throughout today’s vigorous debate, to produce an important document that will work for 100% of Massachusetts’ students,” said Senator Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville). “School committees make significant decisions on how to spend scarce resources, so adopting an amendment to allow locally elected officials, teachers, and parents to have a say as to when and how their tax dollars are spent was a necessary piece of this legislation.”
“This comprehensive legislation, a result of a collaborative process, will improve educational opportunities for all school children in the Commonwealth while creating a capacity to add charter seats,” said Senator Dan Wolf (D-Harwich). “Thank you to Senate President Rosenberg and my fellow working group members for a thoughtful process in writing this legislation.”
The bill also offers school districts a fair deal on funding. Reimbursement to traditional public school systems would be funded for three years to a district mitigation fund for all districts and be funded at 100% in the first year, 50% in the second, and 25% in the third year for districts that have lost students to charter schools.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.