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Charter school moratorium lifted by the state

Move could pave way for hundreds of seats in Boston

Mitchell Chester said he decided to accept proposals for new high-quality charter schools because of the high demand.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Mitchell Chester said he decided to accept proposals for new high-quality charter schools because of the high demand.

State education officials will lift a temporary moratorium on proposals to open charter schools in several cities across Massachusetts, a move that could allow for the creation of more than 1,000 seats in Boston.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview Monday that he decided to accept proposals for new charter schools because of the high demand. The earliest the schools could open is fall 2013.

“It’s absolutely essential we have high-quality schools for all students, and we are not at that goal yet,’’ Chester said. “I’m not interested in charter schools versus traditional schools; I’m interested in high-quality schools.’’

The decision is expected to prompt a flood of charter school proposals this summer in Boston - many to be pitched by existing charter schools with strong academic records - that will greatly exceed the number that can be approved. Lawrence, where the state this year took control of the beleaguered school system, is also expected to attract high interest from charter school developers.

Both those cities have strong demand for charter schools from students and their families. At most of Boston’s 20 charter schools, the waiting lists of students seeking seats this fall range from 550 to 2,647, while waiting lists at Lawrence’s four charter schools range from 682 to 2,206.

Statewide, the 68 charter schools have waiting lists for this fall that total more than 45,000 students.

Charter school operators and supporters, who lobbied Chester and other state officials to end the moratorium, praised the commissioner’s decision.

“City on a Hill is thrilled, over the moon, and excited about the opportunity to offer high-quality college preparatory high school seats to more students in Boston,’’ said Erica Brown, executive director of City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury, which plans to file a proposal for a second campus.

Edward Brooke Charter School, which will have three campuses in operation this fall, said on Monday it is putting together a proposal to create more seats. Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester said it too is exploring an expansion, while Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton is expected to request additional middle school seats after being turned down last year because of the moratorium.

Advocates say other high-profile schools also are expected to submit proposals.

Chester established the temporary moratorium for a few cities last year, just one year after the state enacted a law that allowed for the doubling of charter school seats in school districts with the lowest state standardized test scores. That expansion is supposed to gradually occur over six or seven years, but some cities attracted so many proposals that Chester grew concerned the state might end up approving more than what would be allowed under the state law.

For instance, the state initially received about 20 proposals for Boston in summer 2010 - the first year of the expansion - and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education ultimately approved eight of those requests in February 2011, creating about 3,600 seats. Those approvals left roughly 1,000 or so seats for the later years of the expansion.

Charter school operators and advocates said they understood Chester’s initial caution.

“The commissioner did the right thing in holding the seats up for a year to see how the dust will settle,’’ said Kevin Andrews, headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School. “Now, there will be another 1,000 or so seats to be released in Boston. We are grateful for that.’’

But because charter school operators are expected to quickly grab those additional seats, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and other advocates are planning to go to the Legislature in January to have state law changed so that even more seats can be created.

Charter schools, created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, are supposed to provide innovative educational alternatives to traditional public schools by operating with fewer restrictions from state regulations and almost always without unionized 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 thousands of dollars in state aid from his or her hometown school system.

This year, Boston is losing $13,000 for each student who attends a charter school, about $60 million in all, after deducting limited state reimbursements.

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 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.

The state, which always holds back some seats as a cushion, expects to have better estimates for seat availability by next February when the state board votes on charter school proposals.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said Boston is prepared to compete with the charter schools by bolstering the academic rigor in its schools and by bringing in more art and music programs. Demand for kindergarten is so robust that the city is adding classrooms.

“I think we are working pretty aggressively to improve the quality of our schools,’’ Johnson said. “We have been pleased with the interest of families choosing’’ the Boston public schools.

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