Jim Stergios and Charles Cheippo
After a 2010 law raised Massachusetts' cap on charter public schools, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in February approved an unprecedented 16 new charters.
Those schools will provide opportunity to thousands, but the process by which they were selected should concern anyone interested in school reform and good government.
A 2003 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national education think tank, found Massachusetts had the nation's best charter school authorizing process, lauding the commonwealth's "comprehensive review and oversight practices" and "careful, rigorous, even fussy approach."
That rigor has paid dividends. Although less than 3 percent of the commonwealth's public school students attend charter schools, all three Massachusetts schools in the top 100 in a 2009 Newsweek list of America's top public high schools were charters. Cape Cod's Sturgis Charter Public School, Boston's MATCH School and the Mystic Valley Charter School in Malden ranked ahead of schools like Weston High School and even Boston Latin.
But the authorization process began to unravel in 2008. That year, a proposed school to be managed by SABIS, a company that operates a highly successful Springfield charter, was rejected by the board.
The action was largely based on an outdated Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) finding that SABIS' Springfield school was out of compliance with some special education requirements. Company officials were in attendance and could have informed the Board of DESE's subsequent determination that the problems had been corrected, but they were not allowed to speak.
A year later, on Feb. 4, 2009, the DESE's Charter School Office (CSO) informed state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who makes charter school recommendations to the board, that the proposed Gloucester school did not meet long-established criteria.
The next evening, state Education Secretary Paul Reville sent Chester, then at a conference in Arizona, an email asking if Chester "could see his way clear to supporting" the Gloucester Community Arts application, fearing that the administration otherwise risked being "permanently labeled as hostile" to charters. According to a January 2010 state Inspector General's (IG) report, Chester responded the following day, before returning to Massachusetts, that he was willing to recommend approval.
Chester failed to inform board members of the Charter School Office's wary view of the Gloucester proposal. Instead, according to the IG's report, Chester conveyed "the impression that he and the CSO had mutually recommended approval."
Despite his next-day email confirming his willingness to recommend approval, Commissioner Chester claimed in an affidavit that he conducted an independent evaluation subsequent to receiving the CSO's recommendation against awarding the Gloucester charter.
Citing testimony from DESE officials, the IG concluded that Chester recommended approval "without having reviewed CSO's criteria-by-criteria analysis or having undertaken any subsequent process by which he determined that the ... application had in fact met the established criteria."
A state Superior Court judge agreed, finding "a strong factual showing that the commissioner, despite his affidavit to the contrary, did not perform his own evaluation of the Gloucester charter school application but, to the contrary, ignored the state regulations and caved into political pressure ..."
The 2010 cap-raising law, "An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap," gives preference to "proven" charter school providers. Springfield's SABIS International School certainly meets that definition. It has made Newsweek's list of the nation's 100 best high schools and twice made a similar U.S. News and World Report list.
For 15 years, Massachusetts' nationally recognized authorization process was a cornerstone of the state's charter school success. By 2010, a Superior Court judge cited "considerable evidence to the effect that the board and the commissioner blatantly ignored and violated state law when granting the [Gloucester Community Arts] charter for political reasons."
Urban families across Massachusetts welcome the 16 new charter schools approved this past February.
But the ability to offer similar opportunities in future years will require fixing a once objective and transparent authorization process that is now compromised.
Jim Stergios is executive director and Charles Chieppo is senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank that works extensively with education.