Massachusetts Ballot Question 2: An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools

This November, Mass residents will also be voting on a series of ballot initiatives in addition to the presidential election and other state and local races. As is standard, they were able to be added to the ballot due to a petition drive by their sponsors. This post is second in a series of four posts covering the ballot questions. You can view the rundown of the first ballot question on adding a second slot parlor here. Thanks go to Sarah W. for requesting this specific question!

Massachusetts Ballot Question 2: An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools

See full text of the petition here. There is not a court affirmation available of this petition as of the date of this blog post.


Be it enacted by the People, and by their authority, as follows: AN ACT TO ALLOW FAIR ACCESS TO PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS SECTION 1. Subsection (i) of section 89 of chapter 71 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2014 Official Edition, is hereby amended by inserting after paragraph (4) the following new paragraph:— (5) Notwithstanding the provisions of this subsection (i) relative to the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the commonwealth or in any district, the board may approve up to 12 additional commonwealth charters, commonwealth charter amendments to increase authorized enrollment, or a combination thereof per year; provided that the total enrollment authorized by all such approvals in a single fiscal year shall not exceed 1% of the total statewide public school enrollment for such year as determined by the board; provided further, that in the event that the number of qualified applicants in any year exceeds 12, the board shall give priority among such qualified applicants to those seeking to establish or expand enrollment in commonwealth charter schools in districts where overall student performance on the statewide assessment system approved by the board is in the bottom 25% of all districts in the two years preceding the charter application and where the demonstrated parent demand for additional public school options is greatest; provided further that the board shall apply to all such applicants review and approval standards as rigorous as those applied to all other commonwealth charter applicants; provided further that the recruitment and retention and multilingual outreach provisions of paragraph (3) shall apply to any commonwealth charter school authorized under this paragraph; and provided further that any new commonwealth charter schools authorized by this paragraph shall be subject to annual performance reviews according to standards established by the board. Nothing in this paragraph shall affect the issuance of commonwealth charters under paragraph (3). The percentages of net school spending set forth in paragraphs (2) and (3) shall not apply to or otherwise operate to limit the board’s authority to approve commonwealth charters or commonwealth charter amendments under this paragraph; provided, however, that such percentages shall continue to apply to commonwealth charters issued otherwise than under this paragraph. Except as provided in this paragraph, all otherwise applicable provisions of this section shall apply to commonwealth charters or amendments approved under this paragraph.

A YES vote would allow for 12 additional charter schools to be founded each year (“lift the cap” on the number of charter schools, so to speak), or expanded enrollment in charter schools not to exceed 1% of total school enrollment.

A NO vote would keep the law as is.

There’s a lot of history around this question, but for ease, let’s just start with a definition of charters. A charter school, according to Merriam Webster, is “a school that is established by a charter, is run by teachers, parents, etc., and uses tax money but does not have to be run according to the rules of a city or state”. Massachusetts Department of Education further expands this definition in the following way:

“…charter schools are independent public schools that operate under five year charters granted by the Commonwealth’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The increased freedom available to charter schools coupled with increased accountability, infuses all aspects of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s oversight of charter schools, beginning with the rigorous application process that groups must go through to receive a charter. Once the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has awarded a charter, the new charter school has the freedom to organize around a core mission, curriculum, theme, or teaching method. It is allowed to control its own budget and hire (and fire) teachers and staff. In return for this freedom, a charter school must demonstrate good results within five years or risk losing its charter.” –MA DOE Office of Charter Schools

Essentially, private organizations receive state funds to educate students. These schools offer something different than a traditional public school, for example: they may be focused on the arts, science, leadership, social justice, or a language, getting all of their students into college, have more rigorous discipline standards in an effort to get their students to succeed, or offer a non-traditional school day with more instruction.

(If you are familiar with the debates around charter schools feel free to skip to the next section, or fact check me)

Often, these schools are founded as an alternative to public education in poor communities, and often communities primarily of color. Some see this as good: there is an option to failing public schools that is strongly dedicated to kids in a way the public schools had not been. In fact, today there was an announcement that 160 black education leaders would fight against a restriction on charter schools on behalf of the 700,000 families that choose charter schools as an alternative to public education. Some also claim that charter schools can be the solution to segregation in schools, as schools are almost as segregated now than just following Brown v. Board of Education.

However, others believe that that is not the case. Not only are charters not improving integration of schools, they are actually contributing to segregation. Even worse, others are worried about charters’ population of choice and methods and the implications of them, particularly when young black and Hispanic children are held to strict behavioral standards.  There is widespread disparate impact of discipline on black and Hispanic students compared to white students (1, 2), and this is not solved by charter schools.

Further, the success of charter schools may be questionable. Advocates say that charters clearly lead to higher rates of success for their students, but opponents refute this argument by saying that, considering the families of the children attending charter schools were involved enough and able to navigate the systems needed to enter their child into a charter school, the child likely would have succeeded in public school anyway, and that charters get to filter out students who would not succeed at their schools while public schools do not. Research seems to say that the impact of charters is negligible academically, but may have more positive outcomes after graduation. The debates are ongoing and worthwhile.

Considering that the mere existence of charter schools is controversial in MA, it’s not surprising that the question about adding more has a lot of debate. This has been one of the more contentious questions, as it seems, and there are great arguments on both sides. Let’s take a look!

Arguments in support of the proposal:

  1. Charter schools provide an alternative to public schools, and at 12 new schools a year, there will be ample oversight to make sure they are successful. There is a long application process to get a charter, and each school is analyzed every 5 years to make sure they are adequately educating their students.
  2. Charter schools help overburdened public school systems. Public schools get only a certain amount of money alloted to them, and that can spread thin in a “cash poor” district with many students who need support. Charter schools can take some of the many students in the district and educate them at little expense to the tax payer, ultimately benefiting the community.
  3. Charter schools can provide more attention and support to students who need it most. Following the previous argument, not only can they take some students, but they can also sufficiently staff classrooms at no impact to the taxpayer to support students with special needs. In public schools, each additional staff person draws on the budget.

Great Schools MA is leading the fight “Yes on 2”. You can find more about their arguments here.

Arguments against the proposal:

  1. Charter schools draw resources from public schools, with no accountability. For each student enrolled in a charter school, that student’s home district is required to send a certain percentage of money to the charter school to “follow” the student. However, this is taxpayer money that is now going to a private organization. Further, under the current funding structure, if a student leaves a charter and returns to a public school, the money does not follow them back- it is a one-way transaction, essentially creating incentives for charters to expel students.
  2. Taking away resources from public schools does not “alleviate a burden”, it only further stresses a struggling system. Taking away the money and resources allotted per student doesn’t allow space for the school district, it only means that the schools are even further stretched. We should be investing in our schools rather than copping out.
  3. This measure will greatly increase the number of charters in Massachusetts- at 12 per year, that means over 100 new schools that will need support and guidance in less than 9 years. This is not a reasonable number, but rather a huge influx and further draw on our system.

Save Our Public Schools MA is leading the fight on the other side “No on 2”. You can find their website and arguments here.

Finally, as previously mentioned, this is already a contentious race. It played into the state’s primary races, with interest groups spending thousands of dollars for their preferred candidates. I’m sure it’ll heat up as time goes on, so feel free to ask more questions as time goes on and I’ll see what I can find.

How did I do? Forget something? Learn something new? Let me know in comments below.


2 thoughts on “Massachusetts Ballot Question 2: An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools

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