By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- State education officials on Tuesday approved a major change to the way the state evaluates the performance of school districts, drawing the ire of charter-school advocates who argued the new formula will limit school choices for low-income families in a handful of cities.
As the Legislature grapples over whether to increase the cap in charter-school enrollment in certain underperforming school districts, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously for a new rubric that will determine the opportunity for charter-school growth in low-performing school districts during the 2014-2015 application cycle.
While Education Commission Mitchell Chester said that the new formula has been adjusted to account not just for performance but also for improvement, charter-school advocates say it will limit choices for low-income families and children of color in Brockton, Worcester, Haverhill, Somerville and Lowell. All five districts would no longer be considered among the lowest performing, and would therefore be subjected to a lower cap.
While Brockton, Worcester and Haverhill will still have some room under their lower enrollment spending limits, charter advocates said Lowell and Somerville will immediately see their charter enrollment frozen. The cities will not have to downsize charter schools in their districts, despite exceeding the new limits.
The board, during its meeting in Malden on Tuesday morning, voted to align the formulas used to calculate school accountability and to identify the lowest performing school districts for the purpose of a charter cap lift. Student achievement will count for 75 percent of a school district's total score, while growth will count for 25 percent.
Chester, in a memo to the board, explained that it will be the first time student growth has been used to determine which school districts fall amongst the lowest 10 percent in performance for the purpose of charter enrollment, and increases the weight given to the growth metric by 5 percent compared with the current accountability formula.
"The addition of student growth as a factor in our formula acknowledges that not all students enter a school at the same level of performance. I have not been persuaded by the arguments that growth should be eliminated from the formula," Chester wrote to the board in advance of the vote, explaining his recommendation.
While most districts are limited in spending on charter-school enrollment to 9 percent of net school spending, the lowest-performing districts are allowed to spend up to 18 percent on students attending charter schools, essentially increasing the number of available placements.
The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association blasted the board's decision, accusing it of lowering the state's academic standards by "condoning mediocre student growth and low academic achievement" as measures of a district's success.
"The result of this policy shifts the focus of charter growth from large urban districts to smaller rural and suburban districts. This new policy runs counter to the purpose of the 2010 Achievement Gap law that sought to close race- and income-based achievement gaps," Marc Kenen, executive director of MCPSA, said in a statement.
The association said the five urban school districts that will no longer qualify for charter enrollment expansion serve a combined 67,691 children, including 73 percent low-income and 65 percent minority students. In contrast, the districts that would become newly eligible -- Hawlemont, Wareham, Dennis-Yarmouth, Spencer-East Brookfield, Palmer and Easthampton -- serve a total of 7,905 children, of which 45 percent are low-income and 18 percent of a minority group.
While the charter advocates said the 2010 law was intended to assist chronically underperforming districts with large achievement gaps, Chester urged the board to consider his proposal on its merits without regard for the "speculation" on which districts might be impacted.
"The plain language of the statute is that the cap lift is to apply to the lowest-performing districts, regardless of size or demographics. I do not accept the proposition that some urban districts must always rank below low-performing suburban or rural districts," Chester wrote.
House Democratic leaders in May threw their support behind a limited lift in the cap for charter schools in certain low-performing school districts. The bill that passed the House would effectively only impact six school districts in that category that are bumping up against the 18 percent net school spending limit on charter enrollment, according to Rep. Alice Peisch.
Those districts are Boston, Chelsea, Fall River, Greenfield, Holyoke and North Adams.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who co-chairs the Education Committee with Peisch, said a charter-school bill will be coming up in the Senate soon, but is not scheduled for debate this Thursday. "I would be shocked if we did it that soon," Chang-Diaz said Tuesday afternoon.
The bill is still being drafted in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, she said.
Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, voiced some of the strongest opposition to lifting the charter cap without fully reimbursing local school districts that lose students to charter schools. Her opposition was one of the main reasons the Education Committee could not agree on a proposal.
"I certainly feel a sense of ownership," Chang-Diaz said about the upcoming legislation in the Senate.
Last week, Citizens for Public Schools circulated an "urgent update" email speculating about a possible Senate vote Thursday afternoon on legislation lifting the cap on charter schools in underperforming districts and a discussion of the bill during a closed Democratic caucus.
Colleen Quinn contributed reporting.