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Charter school expansion dies in Senate

Yawu Miller | 7/23/2014, 12:05 p.m.

A push to lift the state’s cap on charter schools died in the State House last week with the Senate twice voting down compromise measures that would have opened the door to new charters and allowed existing schools to expand.

First, a bill sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sonia Chang-Diaz that would have tied charter school expansion to increased funding from the state was voted down 13 to 26.

Next, the Senate voted on a bill lifting the cap approved by the House with a resounding 9 to 30 vote, leaving one of this year’s most divisive issues to smolder until the next legislative session.

Charter school backers say they’re mulling a statewide ballot campaign in 2016.

“It’s all exploratory at this point, but there’s a lot of interest,” said Marc Kennen, executive director of the Mass Charter Public School Association. “It’s clear there’s no desire by the Senate to lift the cap.”

The charter school backers’ defeat in the Senate came after months of State House lobbying by charter school advocates and district school supporters. Chang-Diaz said she was lobbied by both sides, as well as by parents who had children in both charter and public schools.

“Charters are a part of the solution for our communities,” she said. “But they’re not the whole solution, I was not willing to do a cap lift without fixing the things that are broken.”

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the control of the school districts where they are sited. They are regulated by the state and funded by the local school districts. Under the state law, when a student enrolls in a charter school, the local district must pay the charter to educate the student.

Under the Chapter 46 Act of 1997, the Commonwealth is required to pay school districts a partial reimbursement for the funds the district pays the charter schools. But with more than a decade of declining state revenue, the state has reneged on that obligation.

Chang-Diaz inserted a provision in her compromise legislation that would have made charter school expansion contingent on the state reimbursing the school districts in accordance with Chapter 46, a measure charter school opponents opposed.

She also inserted a provision that would require charter schools to maintain student attrition rates equal to those of the school districts in which they operate. Charter school critics have accused some schools of getting rid of lower-performing students to boost their MCAS scores, an option not available to the school districts with which they compete for funding.

Chang-Diaz said she was disappointed by the outcome of the votes.

“It’s a real lost opportunity to have done something for our communities that is needed,” she commented. “Black and Latino communities are underserved by the Boston Public Schools. We have longstanding complaints from both charter school supporters and district school supporters. My point is, let’s fix the problems on both sides.”

The battle over lifting the cap played out in the halls of the State House over the last few months and drew out both charter school parents and parents of students in district schools, many from Boston. Arrayed against lifting the cap were groups including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, an association of municipal officials from the state’s cities and towns, and the state’s two largest teachers unions.

Among those in favor of lifting the cap were charter school associations and The Boston Foundation, whose President, Paul Grogan, told reporters he planned to revisit the issue in the next legislative session.

Boston Charter Alliance Chairwoman Shannah Varon expressed frustration with the Senate vote, noting that many charters in Boston have expansion plans.

“Some of my peers are ready to expand their schools,” she said. “They have plans. They have the teachers. And they just can’t expand because the new seats haven’t been released.”

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who voted in support of Chang- Diaz’s compromise measure, said she too received calls from constituents in support of and against lifting the charter school cap.

“My constituency was split,” she said.

Dorcena Forry said this year’s debate should be the beginning of a conversation about charter school expansion, not the end.

“I think the conversation needs to be about how we can make the education system successful at every level,” she said. “I hope that the charter school community and district school community can sit together at the table and have a conversation about quality education for our children rather than taking it to the ballot.”