DESE fails to collect charter personnel contracts
The Save Our Public Schools campaign issued this press release on Oct. 13 detailing the state’s lack of enforcement of an important charter school oversight function. The few contracts obtained by the MTA raise troubling questions about charter school personnel practices.
Public Records Request Reveals DESE Failing to Collect Charter School
Personnel Contracts, as Required by State Law
Charter Employment Contracts Fine Teachers Who Leave, Prohibit Curriculum Sharing
Although state law requires that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education collect teacher “personnel contracts and collective bargaining agreements” for all publicly funded schools in the Commonwealth, a public records request by the Massachusetts Teachers Association reveals that DESE has not met this obligation for the state’s charter schools. While DESE has collected and posted hundreds of negotiated contracts for district public schools, its response to an MTA public records request shows that it has gathered contracts from just three charter schools, and only two are available on its website.
DESE’s failure to collect personnel contracts for Commonwealth charter schools runs counter to claims that the state provides adequate oversight of charter school teaching and learning conditions.
“The lack of oversight and transparency in these publicly funded schools is troubling.”
— Lisa Guisbond, Executive Director of Citizens for Public Schools
“The lack of oversight and transparency in these publicly funded schools is troubling,” said Lisa Guisbond, Executive Director of Citizens for Public Schools. “Not only does the public have a right to know, but DESE should have been aggressive in obtaining and reviewing charter school employment contracts to make sure they comply with both the letter and spirit of the law governing charter schools. That basic oversight function is not happening in Massachusetts.”
MTA made a formal request for the contracts after several former charter school teachers had approached the union with concerns about provisions in the contracts that they were required to sign. MTA wanted to find out if contracts for other charter schools contained similar provisions of concern.
“What we found in these contracts was more than a little troubling,” said MTA General Counsel Ira Fader. “Frankly, I didn’t expect to find much protection for teachers in these charter school contracts, but I also never expected to find provisions that are counter to public policy and are at best marginally legal, if they are legal at all.”
The issue came to light over the summer when three new MTA members, all of whom had previously taught at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, asked MTA for assistance in dealing with letters sent to them by the charter school demanding thousands of dollars for leaving their employment.
“It was shocking, hurtful and very stressful to get that letter” said former Mystic Valley teacher Matthew Kowalski, who has three young children and a fourth on the way and did not feel he should be billed for more than $6,000 just for accepting a new position. MTA lawyers have informed the charter school that none of the three former teachers are obligated to pay the school for deciding to leave.
Read MTA's letter sent on Kowalski's behalf .
In addition to this “liquidated damages” provision, said Fader, “Mystic Valley’s contract had a non-compete clause for departing teachers, and that is a very peculiar limitation for teachers anywhere.”
Also troubling is language in a personnel contract with Rising Tide Charter Public School in Plymouth that MTA has obtained. Although the Legislature explicitly intended charter schools to be “laboratories of innovation,” Rising Tide’s contract contains a confidentiality provision that prohibits employees from sharing information that “includes but is not limited to matters of a technical nature such as methods of instruction, curriculum development, proposed changes to curriculum, and similar items…”
“Why isn’t DESE ensuring that charter school curricula and instructional practices, all paid for with public dollars, are not treated as proprietary and shrouded in secrecy?” asked Sean Costello, a member of the Marshfield School Committee. “There should be no ‘trade secrets’ in charter schools. But clearly, Rising Tide sees itself as competing with the public schools, not sharing its so-called best practices with them.”
These concerns are not new. In a 2014 report, State Auditor Suzanne Bump concluded, “DESE is responsible for ensuring that these [innovative] practices are developed and shared but has never defined what constitutes an innovative practice or created an environment for the dissemination of new practices in administration or teaching.”
“With DESE ignoring the contents of these charter school personnel contracts, we are all left in the dark,” said Guisbond. “To think that DESE would be able to properly oversee 12 new charter schools a year if the ballot initiative passes is ridiculous. The department already has shown that it is unable or unwilling to effectively oversee the charter schools that currently exist.”