Gov. Patrick Rolls Out Ambitious Charter School Plan03:14

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Gov. Deval Patrick will call for a dramatic increase in the number of charter school seats allowed in low-performing school districts. The proposal scheduled to be announced Thursday would create about 27,000 new charter school seats in about 30 districts.

The governor will outline the plan at a press conference in Boston with federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state Education Secretary Paul Reville, who spoke to us about the plan Thursday morning.

Deborah Becker: Back in January, Gov. Patrick outlined a plan for more charter schools in under-performing school districts, but this proposal and this legislation goes even further. Why this dramatic expansion?

Paul Reville: Well, I think the governor liked the architecture of the bill that we built in collaboration with a variety of partners who sat with us at the table, and he felt that this was the best way to do something for the children who we've least well served in the mainstream system, which would be to find the proven providers who've been successful with these children and give them an opportunity to build a sufficient number of schools to be efficient and effective as charter school networks.

But up until this point, the governor had expressed concerns about the funding that might be taken away from school districts, which lose funding when traditional public school students go to charter schools. How do you address those concerns in this legislation?

Well, I think the governor's still concerned about that, and we've talked with colleagues in the legislature about our concerns with respect to the finance formula, and I'm confident that the legislature's eager to act on that and we're going to work with them on that.

We've also built a whole class of readiness schools here that provide some of the same opportunities to mainstream schools to do the sorts of innovations that we're talking about, coupled with legislation that creates a dramatic intervention by the state in our lowest performing schools in the state.

So in other words, you've got an expanded charter school, you've got readiness schools that are in district schools, and you've also got a provision in there that would allow the state to take over the lowest performing districts if these don't work.

That's right, overall, Deborah, this is a package about closing achievement gaps and acting decisively and dramatically to narrow gaps that in Massachusetts are actually quite wide, wider than many gaps in most of the states around the country, and the governor felt it was high time that we act and we should act decisively.

When you say you're confident that the legislature will act on a funding mechanism for these expanded charter school seats, what does that mean? Does that mean possibly creating a separate pool of state aid for charter schools or do you have some specific proposals on that end?

Well, I think the legislature shares the conviction that the governor has expressed over time, which is: there are financial implications for mainstream schools, and that things like the funding formula that we use to reimburse school districts could be thought of in a more nuanced way than we currently do.

I think there are a number of issues associated with the financing, from how you do it to how you do the reimbursements to how you fund the charter schools themselves. And the legislature has indicated to us that they want to have a close look at that and do something simultaneously, and they've invited us to participate in some way and we will do that.

Do you know specifically how you might do that?

I don't know. I suspect there will be the development of a commission that will make some recommendations-- it's a very complicated problem if you're going to provide sufficient money to providers to operate effective charter schools; if you're going to leave mainstream school systems in a position where they can still conduct the business for most of the students in the commonwealth who will be in those schools for the forseeable future; and if you're not to double pay for students, therefore if you're to do right by taxpayers.

To satisfy those three conditions is challenging, and I think we'll need to take a closer look and we're eager to do that.

When we talk about the other part of this proposal, which is these readiness schools that you're talking about, the plan calls for "allowing educators to fundamentally transform classroom instruction," in these readiness schools. What does that mean, does that mean creating a charter school within a traditional district — more or less — or what is it?

It does. Readiness schools give educators and others who would partner with educators in mainstream schools the opportunity to embrace the kind of flexibility and autonomy that historically have only been available to charter schools.

It's a challenge to the mainstream system to create charter-like conditions within the mainstream system, and for these schools to enjoy flexibility on matters like budget, on staffing, on curriculum and instruction, on schedule and hours and things of this nature — in ways that many charter schools have undertaken.

Do those charter-like conditions mean no teacher union?

Oh no. The teachers would be unionized here, but there are provisions in these bills that allow for waivers from the traditional contract, if the teachers at the particular school vote to embrace such a waiver.

Is this change on the part of the governor -- in terms of allowing more charter school seats in the state — is it primarily becuase the Obama administration has said that federal dollars are at stake here and could be withheld from those states that do not encourage charter school growth?

I think the governor is mindful of what the president and secretary have said, but he's always been determined that we make our own policy, irrespective of what people in Washington are talking about.

If in doing work here that we think closes the achievement gap, which is the main goal that we've had in the readiness project, and we can do it in a way that's not harmful to mainstream schools, that's helpful to children and families who haven't had choices, and that provides opportunities for educators, we'll do it.

And if it helps to qualify us for an opportunity to compete for a major pot of money at the federal level, so much the better. So it was a contributing factor, but it was certainly not the dominant factor in this decision.

This program aired on July 16, 2009.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.