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Walsh rejects charter enrollment bill with his name on it

Walsh’s office complains of “added language”; Bill sponsor: “I filed exactly what his office sent me.”

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Walsh rejects charter enrollment bill with his name on it
Unified Enrollment- Walsh (Photo: Isabel Leon, Mayor’s Office)

Mayor Martin Walsh is seeking to distance himself from a bill bearing his name that parent education activists say was filed quietly and would facilitate a controversial school policy known as unified enrollment, in which Boston families would see both charter and district schools in their lists of the public schools they can choose. Such a policy has been given little public debate in Boston since the idea received fierce pushback two years ago. As such, some parent activists were surprised when legislation seeming to be paving the way for unified enrollment appeared among more than two dozen bills slated for an Oct. 3 State House hearing.

On the Web

Read H. 2876 at:

Email comments on bill H. 2876 to:

Whose bill?

In an Oct. 11 statement to the Banner, a Walsh administration spokesperson said that the bill’s language was altered and that the mayor disavows the legislation, which lists him as a co-sponsor.

“Mayor Walsh has been clear from the start that the community will be fully involved in any conversations related to unified enrollment,” the spokesperson said. “As long as this bill includes the added language on opt-out and if that impacts the unified enrollment discussion, Mayor Walsh will not be supporting this legislation.”

To back this up, the spokesperson provided a letter Walsh submitted on the day of the hearing that calls for passing his bill, H.2876, but which specifically references only some aspects of it and labels the bill with a different name.

However, according to the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Alice Peisch, Walsh supplied the text and she filed it at his request.

“This particular bill I filed at the request of the mayor of Boston, which is a common practice as a courtesy. I filed exactly what his office sent to me,” Peisch said in a Banner phone interview. “I was contacted yesterday [Oct. 12] by his office indicating that they had sent me the wrong draft and his intent was only to pass the portion of the bill allowing neighborhood charter schools in Boston. The first section had to do with the opt-out lottery was not intended to be included.”

According to Peisch, the mayor’s office said they were unaware what they filed until the bill’s hearing.

The bill’s filing deadline was January 2017. In that same month, Rahn Dorsey, Boston’s education chief, told the Banner that the Boston Compact, a private entity that includes representatives from charter, Catholic and district schools, was 90 percent done with a formal proposal on unified enrollment. Dorsey is one of the Compact’s members. Last week, a Walsh administration spokesperson provided a statement in Dorsey’s name saying that the Compact is working on addressing questions that parents and educators had raised about unified enrollment.

On Oct. 16 a spokesperson provided the Banner with a letter on behalf of Rachel Weinstein, the Compact’s chief collaboration officer, stating that the Compact is not involved with the bill. According to a Compact spokesperson, Weinstein says the Compact has received accusations that they are secretly pushing this legislation.

Is it about unified enrollment?

The letter attributed to Weinstein states that the bill does not advance or in any way connect to unified enrollment.

“The bill referenced, H. 2876, has nothing to do with unifying enrollment for district and charter schools,” the letter says. “The legislation proposed three options for how charter schools could amend their enrollment processes — none of which place district and charter schools into the same system.”

However, some parent activists say the bill sets the stage for such a change. Enacting unified enrollment, in which the enrollment system for charter schools is blended with that of district schools, requires a change in state law to allow charter schools to have one common lottery, instead of individual ones for each school. The final paragraph of H. 2876 would make this change. Walsh neither referred to nor denied association with this provision.

The portion of the bill that Walsh explicitly supports in his Oct. 3 letter allows willing charter schools to adopt a local geographic enrollment preference suggestive of the home-based model used by Boston Public Schools. This may not be necessary for a Boston unified enrollment system, but facilitates smoother integration.

The third aspect of the bill allows charter schools to choose to automatically enter all eligible students into their enrollment lotteries, without the students choosing to submit applications. Students selected through the enrollment lottery could choose not to attend. Any students who did not wish to be included in the lottery would have to actively opt out. Walsh’s spokesperson now says he opposes this opt-out, automatic enrollment lottery system.

Cons, pros, public comments

The parent activist group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) issued a report last month outlining concerns over unified enrollment. One concern is that such a policy may restrict school choice. Giving charter schools slots on a family’s list of school options could displace some district school options, unless lists are lengthened. And switching charters from citywide enrollment to local enrollment would mean that access depends on where a student lives, removing that charter school as an option for students who live farther away. Other concerns are that unified enrollment may not necessarily be accompanied by reforms to ensure charter schools also educate the same proportion of students with higher needs. Because such students traditionally perform less well on standardized tests, if district schools end up serving greater shares of that population while charters siphon off better-scoring students, this would disadvantage district schools’ test scores compared to charters and thus jeopardize their school rankings.

At present, such concerns linger because there was no robust public debate in Boston prior to the legislation’s filing and because the four-page bill does not provide answers to them.

Despite this, the public still can weigh in. According to Peisch, who is the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education, members of the public may submit comments and concerns to the committee by email until the legislators make their final decision on the bill, which could happen anytime between now and the final decision deadline in February 2018. Most bills will not receive decisions until December or January, she said.

Should the Committee believe more study of the bill is necessarily, it will not report it out favorably, Peisch said. It is not clear what that will mean for this charter enrollment bill, given that Peisch says similar language to that which Walsh now opposes was passed in the House three years ago as part of a larger package. She had supported that bill.

Further debate on H.2876 would occur, should it advance to the House and Senate.

In contrast to QUEST and Walsh, Peisch supports this current bill H.2876. She stated that because it enters all students into charter lotteries, it should resolve concerns that charters do not serve all students. While critics of charters charge that some charter schools push out students post-enrollment or fail to provide services necessary for them to be served at the school, Peisch says that to her knowledge, charter schools are generally doing a good job of meeting students’ needs.

Future of the bill

Walsh’s apparent rejection of the legislation filed on his behalf is expected to have some impact, but not necessarily stop it from advancing. Peisch said that first and foremost, committee members consider whether they believe the bill represents good policy — which Peisch believes it does. Then, among the other factors they consider is whether the stakeholders are supporting it.

Other State House efforts
This bill is not the only measure aired at the State House on Oct. 3 that would substantially change charter enrollments. H.259 from State Rep. Colleen Garry and H.2011 from Rep. Paul Brodeur and co-sponsored by Sen. Jamie Eldridge provide for automatically entering all eligible students in opt-out admissions lotteries for charters. These legislators did not respond to requests for comment.

House bill H.245 from Rep. James Dwyer, and its Senate companion bill S.272 , lead sponsored by Sen. Pat Jehlen and co-sponsored by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Reps. Kenneth Gordon and James O’Day, pair new charter enrollment policies with a host of other measures regarding charter school behavior.