Ed official says hands tied on charter school rulings

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 14, 2014…..A top state education official on Tuesday said the department’s hands were tied over the disqualification of two new charter school applicants despite both leading candidates for governor urging reconsideration of proposed charters in Fitchburg and Brockton.

With three weeks remaining before the election, Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley on Tuesday seized on a report that state education officials are not likely to green-light any new charter schools this year. Charter schools pitched for Brockton and the Fitchburg area were dropped from consideration because they are not located in districts that are among the lowest-performing in the state.

“This isn’t a judgment call on our part. This is a state law that we are tasked with enforcing whether we agree with it or not. We could reconsider, but the state law is pretty clear,” said Deputy Education Commission Jeff Wulfson.

Baker urged the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to reconsider its decision, and called on Coakley to join him in calling for expanded access to charter schools in Massachusetts.

“As Governor, I will fight any attempts to put politics ahead of children in the Commonwealth’s cities and I hope the Department of Education will reconsider their decision to limit access to quality schools,” Baker said in a statement.

A little over an hour later, Coakley responded with a statement doing just that: “Today’s news that all new charter school proposals were rejected is disappointing, and I am calling on the Department of Education to reconsider the decision. Families and children in Brockton and Fitchburg deserved better. We shouldn’t let a technicality get in the way of offering increased opportunities to our children in school districts across the state.”

Charter advocates say the denial of applications for new charters this year will hinder development in cities where they say charters are most needed and where children are on waiting lists to attend the alternative public schools.

A push on Beacon Hill this year for legislation to provide a controlled lift of the cap on charter schools failed amid continuing division between charter advocates and proponents of traditional public schools, including teachers unions.

Coakley has said during the campaign that she supports lifting the cap on charter schools, and in her primary night acceptance speech said the state must learn from successful charters. Baker has been a more vocal advocate for charter expansion, strongly backing the failed legislation and proposing to not only increase the number of charter schools, but remove “arbitrary restrictions” on the number of students who can attend in the lowest performing districts.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in late September invited New Heights Charter School, of Brockton, and Academy for the Whole Child Charter School, serving the Fitchburg region, to proceed to the final stage of the licensing process and submit full applications.

That decision was subsequently reversed when educations officials realized that Fitchburg and Brockton are no longer among the state’s lowest 10 percent performing school districts, disqualifying the applications based on a 2010 education reform law.

While both cities were among the 29 lowest performing school districts in 2013, spring MCAS scores and a new formula adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in June elevated both districts out of the lowest 10 percent.

The change to the formula, which was adopted two days before aspiring charter operators were required to submit letters of intent to the board, gave districts credit for improved student performance from one year to the next in addition to raw MCAS scores. The new formula helped move eight districts out of the lowest tier, including Fitchburg and Brockton.

“Although that was the final board vote, everyone was well aware of what the proposals were,” Wulfson said. “That didn’t come as a surprise, but even if the board had not changed any of the calculations, because they are based on the spring MCAS there’s always the issues of having to start working before we’ve published our list and they’re told that.”

Wulfson said the department has extended by over a week until Nov. 14 the deadline for final charter school applications to be submitted in order to give both applicants time to consider changing locations for their charter schools. The operators may also appeal to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for a waiver from state regulations, though Wulfson said it’s unclear what regulation could be waived.

The department this fall and winter will also weigh three applications for new Horace Mann charters in Salem, Springfield and Boston.

Horace Mann charter schools operate in cooperation with host districts and require the approval of the local school committee.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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