The Charter Cheat Sheet: A Guide to Charter Schools in Massachusetts
A primer for parents on understanding school lotteries, navigating college admissions, and cutting through all of the educational jargon.
A Guide to the Cap
Lost in the rhetoric? Here’s what you need to know. —Kyle Scott Clauss
When it comes to the charter school debate, you’ve likely heard references to “the cap”—and you may already know that we’ll be voting on whether to lift it this fall. But what is it, exactly?
When Massachusetts first authorized charter schools, in 1993, the new legislation included restrictions on how many could be built. As the demand increased, the legislature raised the limit in 2000, and again in 2010. This November, voters will weigh in on the issue with a new ballot question. If approved, it would permit the state to add up to 12 new charter schools each year or allow existing charter schools in lower-performing districts to enroll additional students.
This past May, polls indicated that 50 percent of voters supported lifting the cap. Pro-charter factions claim it’s the best way to fix a broken system; opponents say charters unfairly siphon funds from traditional public schools. Now it’s up to you to decide.
The Loudest Voices in the Schoolyard
Three local politicians who have brought Massachusetts’ charter school debate to the forefront. —Andrea Timpano
Boston City Councilor
Ask Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson what he thinks about lifting the state cap on charter schools, and chances are you’ll get an earful. As chairman of the council’s Committee on Education, the Roxbury native has roundly criticized charters for diverting resources from the city’s cash-strapped public schools. Jackson has also slammed the charter system for its notoriously high rates of out-of-school suspension, a tactic many believe is used to weed out underachieving students. According to Jackson, out-of-school suspensions—disproportionately imposed on students of color—fuel the “school-to-prison pipeline” by increasing a student’s odds of dropping out. It’s a contested theory, to be sure, but if there’s one point of consensus, it’s this: Jackson’s not backing down from the fight.
During his gubernatorial campaign, longtime charter schools supporter Charlie Baker won the hearts of fellow advocates by pledging to prioritize charter expansion if elected. Now, nearly two years into his term, he’s making good on that promise. Despite the Senate’s rejection of his 2015 proposal to increase the number of charters in low-performing districts, Baker remains a vocal proponent of the expansion initiative and supports its appearance as a referendum on the November ballot. The governor’s views have put him at odds with local teachers unions and other charter opponents, who believe that lawmakers should do more to compensate district schools for lost resources instead of surrendering to a larger charter school system.
Massachusetts State Senator
Finding middle ground on an issue as polarizing as charter schools is no easy task, and few people know that better than Sonia Chang-Díaz. As the Senate chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Education, this former Boston Public School teacher fielded heavy criticism after charter-expansion legislation she supported—crafted with the intention of appeasing both sides—failed miserably on the Senate floor in 2014. Two years later, Chang-Díaz is back with a new compromise that calls for both a gradual lift on the charter cap and an increase in funding for district public schools. Though state senators passed the bill, it was considered dead at the doors of the House, and Governor Baker has criticized it for failing to address the lengthy charter school waiting lists and the budgetary implications of increased public school funding.
Charter School FAQs
What does it take to get my kid into a charter school?
There are no special admission interviews, essays, or fees. Parents must fill out the school’s enrollment form, submit it by the deadline, and hope they get lucky in the admissions lottery.
How does the admissions lottery work, and when does it take place?
Each charter school holds its own lottery, which is open to the public. Some schools use computer programs to conduct the drawing, while others pull numbered balls from a bingo cage. The majority of lotteries take place in early March, as the schools are required by law to have completed the drawings by the second Wednesday of that month.
Can I apply to more than one school?
Yes. In fact, if you’re determined to send your child to a charter school, you should apply to many. The lotteries are competitive, so chances are slim that you’ll land spots in multiple schools. But if you do, you’ll have until the start of the school year to make your choice.
If one of my kids already goes to a charter school, does that guarantee a spot in the same school for my other children?
There are no guarantees, but charter schools have sibling-preference policies in place during the initial admissions lottery. Some schools also give preference to siblings who end up on waiting lists. Regardless of whether you have a child already enrolled, all students must follow the standard application process.
How do I know if a specific charter is a good fit for my kid?
Visit schools when they have open houses and talk with teachers and administrators. If you want to connect with families who’ve sent their child to a specific charter school, see if the school has a social media presence, such as a Facebook group (many do).
Do charter schools provide services for children with special-education needs or ELL students?
Yes. As public schools, charters are open to all students within their service area and are required to provide necessary programming.
Are there sports teams at charter schools?
Yes, though your child’s options might be limited. The Massachusetts Charter School Athletic Organization sanctions basketball, baseball, softball, track, soccer, volleyball, and cheerleading, but not all schools have teams.
What about extracurricular activities?
Again, this depends on the school. Boston Collegiate Charter School, for instance, offers everything from a robotics club to a stop-motion animation club to Mathletes. Make sure to ask about extracurricular offerings during open houses.
How do college admissions officers view applicants from charter schools? We went straight to the source. —Chris Sweeney
Dean of admissions and enrollment management for Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering
“We evaluate a student within the context of their school—whatever type that may be—to see that they have challenged themselves both inside and outside of the classroom. My advice to families in charter schools or thinking about them: Encourage your child to take a rigorous course load through senior year, get involved in activities they enjoy, and forge strong relationships with their teachers because they, as recommendation-letter writers, will be introducing them to the admissions committee.”
Assistant provost for diversity in enrollment management at UMass Amherst
“While we read all applicants with the same consideration, we do make it a priority to visit as many charter schools in Massachusetts as possible for recruitment. Additionally, because of our partnership with the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, we’ve made a commitment to tracking the success of charter students once they’re here. Finally, I would add that charter applicants should keep in mind that the landscape is vast. There are lots of great and affordable options out there.”
Associate vice president and executive director of admissions at Boston University
“While academic rigor is the primary consideration in our comprehensive review, BU’s admissions process takes into account criteria beyond grades and standardized test scores, and includes students’ extracurricular activities, teacher and counselor recommendations, personal statements and/or essays, and other factors when appropriate. Students attending charter schools are given equal consideration and are admitted at the same rate as students from public and private high schools.”
Considering a charter? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you navigate the educational shorthand. —Chris Sweeney
The Boston Education Justice Alliance has been critical of charter expansion and helped organize recent walkouts at public schools throughout the city.
Democrats for Education Reform is a local group with national backing that advocates in favor of charter schools.
The Massachusetts Charter School Athletic Organization has formed leagues so that charter schools can compete among one another in sports such as soccer, basketball, and track.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education is the state’s top agency devoted to schools.
An English language learner, or a student who cannot yet communicate fluently or learn effectively in English.
An Individualized Education Program is a tailor-made curriculum required for special-education students.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, long considered the benchmark of standardized tests in the state, has come under increased scrutiny recently for failing to reflect Common Core standards.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers is a standardized test that’s increasingly being seen as the new MCAS.
Special Education Parental Advisory Councils, made up of volunteers advocating for children with special needs, operate in many cities, including Boston and Somerville.