Don't Raise The Massachusetts Charter Cap Just Yet

10/15/2016 11:06 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2017

A lot of people have asked me if I support lifting the charter school cap in Question 2 of the ballot. My short answer is that we need to fix some problems associated with charter schools in Massachusetts before we raise the cap. So, no, I do not support raising the cap at this time. Let me explain why.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run schools. Charter schools were supposed to be small laboratories for best practices. They have gotten away from that mission and have become an alternative to public schools. Choice for parents is a good thing. But some charter schools are doing well, some struggling, and some failing. We don't really know which is which on a systemic basis. However, we need to know what we are sending our children to, which brings me to my first problem with charter schools - how do we know if they are delivering the outcomes we hope for?

Measuring Charter School Outcomes

First, we can't just rely on 'parent satisfaction' or 'student self report' as a true measure of charter school outcomes. Satisfaction and self report don't offer any scientific rigor and are rife with third variables influencing the satisfaction or self report.

Second, we can't compare charter school scores to public school scores. That may sound crazy but there is a self selection bias that places students who come from families that take an extra step to see to it that their children do well academically. This confounds the results.

The correct way to measure a charter school is not to compare the scores of the schools against one another, but to compare the 'cohorts of students' who were part of the lottery process to one another.

For example, if 100 students apply to a charter school, and the charter school can only accommodate 40 students, the charter school will typically use a lottery process to determine who will be admitted to the charter school. This is the right thing to do. What we need to make sure that happens next is that the 40 students who were admitted to the charter school are compared to the 60 students who were not and ended up back in the public school. This is not usually done but it must happen because the randomization of the students who were 'selected' vs 'not selected' eliminates any bias at home or in the students; the fact that all students who applied are measured against each other eliminates the self selection bias. By comparing the group students who got into the group of students who did not, we can draw conclusions about the outcomes that that particular charter school is delivering. This brings me to another concern about generalizing results of charter schools.

We cannot generalize the results of charter schools; each charter school is different and has different practices and cultures. Too often I hear proponents of charter schools point to select studies that show a particular charter school works. If the charter school was actually measured correctly, and they usually are not, the positive results are limited to just that charter school.

This issue is something that the Legislature and the State's education department (DESE) needs to take more seriously. Proper outcome measurement is a complaint I have across virtually every state agency; in my opinion, measuring outputs is very common and measuring outcomes is extremely rare.

Charter School Funding Problems

So, if we can't generalize the results of one charter school to another, and we don't know on a systematic basis which charter schools are producing good outcomes, why would we want to put more money into charter schools? There are some persuasive TV commercials that are, in my opinion, intellectually dishonest. One such commercial talks about how voting yes on question 2 will result in more money for public schools. This is highly misleading. This commercial makes this claim under the notion that a charter school is a public school. This is not true. A charter school is a privately run but publicly funded school. Being privately run, in my opinion, makes it a private school.

Another claim is that the state offers a charter school reimbursement to district schools. This is misleading at best. When a student leaves the district school, the money follows the student but the state gives only a 'partial' reimbursement for the loss of that student.

Charter school reimbursement is not fully funded in the state budget, and even it were, it would not cover the costs associated with students who leave a district school for a charter school. The reimbursement schedule is uniform across school districts, but it should not be because the fixed and variable costs of schools are not uniform. The DESE website states, "Over the next five fiscal years the sending district will receive another 125 percent of this initial aid increase" but the fixed costs are greater than 125% over 5 years. DESE continues "The additional 125 percent will be meted out equally over five fiscal years in 25 percent increments. At the end of the sixth year the sending district will have received 225 percent of the initial increase in aid, or 100 + 25 + 25 + 25 + 25 + 25 = 225." At the end, the public school has lost 600% (was supposed to be reimbursed for 225% but has not been) and is left with a deficit of over 335%. The fixed costs over 6 years alone are far greater than the 225% that is supposed to be given in reimbursement. This formula doesn't account for the actual costs; this DESE formula is a crude and arbitrary metric that places a lot of burden on school districts and municipalities.

This is not the first time I have written about charter schools. I don't have a problem with the original intent of charter schools, or the choice they offer that they have evolved into. The problem I have is that 1) we are not properly measuring charter schools and 2) we are not effectively funding district schools under the current rubric. If we do not fix these problems before we raise the cap we will create more problems that we solve by increasing the cap. Both of these things need to change before we raise the cap, and for that reason I am voting no on question 2 and I hope you will as well.

Paul Heroux is a State Representative from Massachusetts. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.