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Advocates seeking more Boston charter schools

Backers want state to lift cap on new facilities

MALDEN - Boston charter school operators and advocates are urging state education officials to lift a moratorium on new charter schools in the city, two years after the enactment of a state law called for a sweeping expansion of these schools.

Advocates say allowing the establishment of more schools would address pent-up demand among students and parents in Boston. Collectively, the approximately 20 independently run charter schools in the city have 20,000 students on waiting lists, and some have seen their waiting lists double or triple in size in the past two years.

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Supporters will make their plea Tuesday morning at a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as a new round of charter school approvals is about to begin.

“The need is so tremendous at every grade,’’ said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. “Our goal is to squeeze as many kids as we can into a high-quality charter school education.’’

The two-year-old expansion law, administered by state education leaders, has failed to keep pace with demand, advocates said. Although more than 1,000 additional seats can still be created under the law, state education officials have refused to consider any new charter schools for the city since February 2011, when eight additional schools for Boston were approved. Those schools created roughly 3,600 seats.

State education officials are considering lifting the moratorium and have drafted a potential proposal. But they remain undecided about whether such a move would be premature because the expansion law sets limits on how quickly the growth in new charter schools can occur.

Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, is expected to speak to the issue at Tuesday’s meeting but is not expected to make a recommendation on lifting the moratorium, said JC Considine, a department spokesman.

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Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, the approximately 60 independently run charter schools across the state are supposed to provide innovative educational alternatives to traditional public schools because they operate with fewer restrictions and almost always employ nonunion teachers.

Many charter schools have among the best MCAS scores in the state, but others perform below school district averages, and the state has closed a few.

School systems have long opposed charter schools primarily because of the way the state funds them. Every student who attends a charter school takes with them thousands of dollars in state aid from their hometown school system. This year, Boston is losing $13,000 for each student who attends a charter school, about $60 million in all.

Because of the financial impact on school systems, the state limits the number of students who can attend a charter school in a community.

In the past, no more than 9 percent of a district’s “net school spending’’ could go toward charter school tuition. But the 2010 charter school expansion law has been gradually lifting that limit, to 18 percent by fiscal 2017 in school systems with the lowest MCAS scores.

The gradual increase in how much of a school department’s spending can go toward charter school tuition makes it difficult for state education officials to precisely determine how many charter schools can open in the next few years; state education officials were initially hesitant about opening too many schools at once.

Still, the state approved the eight new charter schools in 2011 for Boston in anticipation of gradual spending increases. The question now is whether the state can allow more schools to open or expand next fall or does it need to wait a year or two longer.

“We are hearing every day from folks who are interested in the Boston [charter school] seats,’’ Jeff Wulfson, a deputy education commissioner, said Monday during a charter school subcommittee meeting of the state education board in Malden.

Wulfson noted that other cities - Lowell, Lawrence, and Holyoke - are facing moratoriums on charter school growth.

Beverly Holmes, chairwoman of the subcommittee, expressed concern about lifting the moratorium for Boston only.

“It’s not easy,’’ she said. “My concern is that we are consistent and sending a singular message.’’

In an interview, Erica Brown, executive director of City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury, said she is hoping the state lifts the moratorium. She said her high school already has prepared a proposal to open a second campus and has even hired a principal. Now, they just need state approval.

“We’re ready to go,’’ she said, noting that the current school received more than 800 applications for fewer than 100 seats for this fall.

Matthew Wilder, a Boston School Department spokesman, said school officials welcome the increased competition.

“We recognize where a family decides to send their children is a personal decision, and we will not question that,’’ Wilder said. “Our goal is to make our schools the greatest places where families want to send their children.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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