Auditor: Key data missing from 'philosophical' charter school debate

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BOSTON — More than 20 years after the state law was approved authorizing charter schools, Massachusetts still lacks key data about the demand for such schools and whether charters are mirroring the mix of students in traditional public schools, Auditor Suzanne Bump said Wednesday.

During an appearance on Boston Herald Radio, Bump said she could not quantify how much charter school supporters may be overstating demand by regularly pointing to a waiting list of 37,000 students. She acknowledged there is demand for charter schools in Massachusetts, but wondered how legitimate decisions could be made about how and where to open up the system without more information.

Charter school supporters, including Gov. Charlie Baker, are pressing ahead with a 2016 ballot question to facilitate the growth of charters while also working the halls of Beacon Hill to see if the Legislature will pass a charter cap lift and render the ballot question moot. While publicly financed, charter schools are managed by boards of trustees and most operate independently of local school committees.

In a December 2014 audit, Bump found charter school waiting list numbers were "significantly overstated" because children were on multiple lists or names were rolled forward from one year to the next without verification by state education officials.

"It's pretty bad practice to use data that has been found to be and even acknowledged by the agency to be erroneous and to use that as the basis for public policy decisions," Bump said Wednesday. "It's one thing to do something in ignorance; it's another thing to do something in defiance of erroneous information."

Bump also said she's "not sure" that state officials are checking data to ensure that the student population at charter schools reflects the mix of students in traditional public school districts based on factors such as language and developmental disability, special needs and income levels.

"This is what it comes down to for me — after so many years this is still largely a philosophical discussion," said Bump. "When we should have had an ample opportunity to create meaningful analysis of what works and what doesn't work, we've never put the systems in place in order to do that."

The charter industry says it uses random lotteries to pick students when applications exceed open slots. Charters also "enroll twice the percentage of poor and minority students as district schools," according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

The House last session passed legislation allowing a limited increase in charter schools. That bill failed in the Senate. Midway through the 2015-2016 session, charter school proponents and opponents have been waiting to hear from Senate President Stanley Rosenberg about the odds of a bill advancing in that chamber, where charter school opponents appear to outnumber supporters.

On Wednesday, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said senators will craft a sweeping charter school reform bill but declined to say whether he thinks it will pass that branch. Rosenberg said he didn't think the Senate would be spending time on charter school policy were it not for the threat of a ballot question.

Baker joined charter school supporters Tuesday at the State House where they delivered signatures from 25,000 people who support charter school expansion as a method of opening educational opportunities for children, especially those in low-performing school districts.

Baker has filed his own legislation to expand charter schools and said Tuesday he has not given up on the hope of passing legislation this year to lift the cap. "There's always possibility," Baker said.


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