Charter schools represent one facet of a national reform movement that has promoted and engendered innovative public education approaches and organizational arrangements in many states, including Massachusetts. Charter schools are generally free to establish their own curricula, hire their own staff, and control their own finances. In return, charter schools are expected and obligated to fulfill the objectives of their charters. An underlying premise of the charter school concept is that introducing competition into the public education system will have beneficial effects.

Massachusetts was one of the first five states in the country to undertake a charter school initiative. The charter school law authorizes the creation of two types of charter schools: Commonwealth charter schools and Horace Mann charter schools. When the Office initiated this review in March 1998, no Horace Mann charter schools had been established; accordingly, no Horace Mann charter schools were included in the scope of this review. Thus, the findings contained in this report relate exclusively to Commonwealth charter schools.

Commonwealth charter schools receive state funds under M.G.L. c. 70, which establishes standards for state funding of public schools in Massachusetts. According to the DOE's published statistics, charter schools in Massachusetts received close to $45 million in M.G.L. c. 70 funds in the 1998 fiscal year. In addition, charter schools, like other public schools, may receive federal and state grant funds. Under the charter school law, charter schools may incur temporary debt in anticipation of receiving funds, provided that the terms of repayment may not exceed the duration of the school's charter without the approval of the Board of Education. Charter schools may also receive funds and other donations from private donors.

The charter school initiative, both nationally and in Massachusetts, is designed to require performance-based accountability. In Massachusetts, the determination of whether a charter school should receive public funds is guided by three questions:

  1. Is the academic program a success?
  2. Is the school a viable organization?
  3. Is the school faithful to the terms of its charter?

A charter school office within the DOE is responsible for overseeing and providing technical assistance to Massachusetts charter schools. The responsibilities of the DOE's charter school office include, but are not limited to, evaluating new charter applicants; assisting newly chartered schools; monitoring the performance of charter schools in improving the academic performance of charter school students; reviewing charter school reports; disbursing state aid to charter schools; and evaluating renewal applications. Since February 1999, these functions have been carried out by two professional staff.

Profiles of Charter Schools in This Review

The 24 schools in this review were granted charters between 1994 and 1996. In 1998, these schools consisted of seven elementary schools, five combined elementary-middle schools, five middle schools, six high schools, and one school serving students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. In the 1998 fiscal year, the 24 schools received state aid under M.G.L. c. 70 totaling $44,302,722 for a combined enrollment of 6,590 students. The expenditures reported by the 24 schools totaled $49,902,034 in the 1998 fiscal year.