When voters in Massachusetts head to the polls this November, they will be asked whether or not they believe the state’s quota on charter schools should be increased. The initiative included on the ballot would allow the creation of 12 new, approved charter schools above the current limit allowed to open each year.
A recently released report from the Brookings Institution considers the ballot proposal by taking a closer look at whether charter schools are performing at a higher level than traditional public schools in those districts that currently has a cap limiting additional charter school seats.
The report, “Massachusetts charter cap holds back disadvantaged students,” found that charter schools located in urban areas in the state have positive effects on the educational outcome of students. Those effects were found to be particularly large for disadvantaged students, English language learners, special education students, and children who had low test scores upon enrollment in charter schools.
Meanwhile, researchers noted that the educational outcomes were found to be negative among charter schools located in suburban and rural areas in the state. Lottery estimates suggest that students enrolled in these schools perform either the same or worse than their peers who attend traditional public schools. The authors noted that the charter cap does not currently restrict charter expansion in these areas, meaning that the ballot initiative would not have any effect on the expansion rate for these schools.
There are currently 78 charter schools in operation throughout Massachusetts.
The charter cap currently in place in the state does not allow schools to expand in the urban areas they have found to be successful in. If voters were to lift the cap, the authors maintain that more students would be able to benefit from the charter schools, which they say have increased test scores, better prepared students for college, and increased college attendance rates.
A “smart cap” has been in place in the state since 2010, giving preference to applications from charter providers that have a proven track record who are looking to expand in low-performing districts. However, even with the smart cap in place, expansion is restricted in a number of areas, including Boston, Springfield, Malden, and Lawrence. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of students are sitting on wait lists for charter schools in these districts. The authors also note that the majority of low-income, immigrant, Hispanic, and Black students are located in these areas.
The ballot initiative would raise the current cap by 12 schools to allow additional new, approved schools to open each year. New and expanding charters would be required to go through the current application and review process, believed to be one of the most rigorous in the country.
Researchers state that charter schools have been found to produce large increases in student achievement across the state. Recent estimates suggest that just one year of enrollment in a Boston charter middle school increases math test scores by 25% of a standard deviation. Annual increases for language arts were found to be around 15% of a standard deviation. Test score gains were even higher in high school.