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Boston mayoral hopefuls voice views on charter schools

The majority of Boston’s 12 candidates for mayor support adding more charter schools in the city, testament to the growing momentum to expand independent schools.

At an education forum Thursday night, seven candidates said they would push to lift a cap on the number of charter schools, which are underwritten by tax dollars but run separately from traditional Boston public schools. Several candidates expressed enthusiastic support for charter schools because they said the institutions have fostered needed innovation and creativity in education.

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“How can you limit something that works?” asked John Barros, a former School Committee member. “How can you limit something that is teaching our children and making progress?”

The forum at the Boston Public Library’s main branch in Copley Square allowed candidates to delve deeply into education policy. Candidates called for longer school days, rallied behind funding for arts education, and discussed how they would handle contract negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union.

“I wouldn’t wait for the next teachers contract to be up to make changes,” state Representative Martin J. Walsh said. “I would sit down with the teachers union and talk to them about some of the changes and concessions we need to turn around schools.”

Councilor Michael P. Ross addressed a similar issue with the Teachers Union and pretended to address the group as if its members were on stage.

“I don’t expect to get the Teachers Union endorsement, but if I do that would be great,” Ross said. “But I expect to work with them. Before I run off and pass legislation, I’ll ask them. I’ll ask, ‘Hey, teachers unions. Would you like to work with me?’ ”

The event — sponsored by EdVestors, MassINC, Teach Plus, The Boston Foundation, and Massachusetts 2020 — allowed candidates to describe how they would try to fix lagging schools or how they thought teachers should be evaluated.

But the sharpest contrast came in the discussion of charter schools. Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are designed to provide innovative educational alternatives to traditional public schools. They operate with fewer restrictions from the state, most often are independent from local districts, and almost always employ nonunion teachers.

Walsh bragged proudly about serving on the board of a charter school for 16 years and said he supported adding more with a focus on what has worked best. Bill Walczak, who cofounded Codman Academy Charter Public School, said he would “absolutely lift the cap” on charter schools, but said it was just one of many tools to improve education for all of the city’s 57,000 public school students. He said charter schools have proved that autonomy and strong leadership are ways to improve the system.

District Attorney Daniel F. Conley argued that the charter school movement was pushing “the next level of innovation in all schools” and said he would unequivocally add more.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency here,” Conley said. “This is a school justice issue.”

Charter schools remain a polarizing issue. Opponents say the schools siphon needed tax dollars away from the school system as a whole. Councilor John R. Connolly voiced strong support for charter schools, but also warned against the “toxic debate” that pits traditional public schools against their independent counterparts.

“I don’t care if it’s a Boston public school or a charter school; I care if it’s a great school,” Connolly said. “It’s not as crystal clear as the toxic debate makes it sound. . . . I want to make sure every school is doing right by all children.”

At least two candidates — Councilors Charles C. Yancey and Felix G. Arroyo — are against adding more charter schools. Yancey said he would say an “an emphatic no” to more charter schools because it would drain money from others schools.

Arroyo was not allowed to join the other candidates on the stage because he arrived 30 minutes late to the forum. His campaign said he was delayed because he was the keynote speaker at an event at Jewish Vocational Services . Arroyo said he would not support more charter schools because he would rather invest in the school system as a whole, according to his campaign.

Charlotte Golar Richie expressed some hesitancy about expanding the number of charter schools.

“I would with reservation look at lifting the cap,” Golar Richie said. “I’m not against charter schools. But I would do so with some caveats. I would look at the financial implications of raising the cap.”

Ross offered a similarly nuanced answer. He said he would not lift the state cap on charter schools but would add more in-district charter schools, which have some autonomy but are still part of the Boston public schools system.

“To me, the purpose of charters would give a real punch in the arm to our school system, which is exactly what it did,” Ross said.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.
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