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The Boston Globe

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YVONNE ABRAHAM

On Beacon Hill, upskirting trumps education

If only all legislation moved through the State House as smoothly as the upskirting bill – the law prohibiting the taking of pervy snapshots — that rocketed through Beacon Hill in a single, glorious day earlier this month.

Alas, the process is almost always more contentious, and drawn out, than that – even on matters everybody agrees are urgent. Like the fact that too many kids in this state are still trapped in failing schools.

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A bill known as An Act to Further Narrow the Achievement Gap would go a long way toward helping those kids, but it’s stuck in committee, all its promise held hostage to the acrimony over charter schools. Legislators in the Joint Education Committee have until next Wednesday to come to agreement. It would be a huge shame, and a colossal missed opportunity, if the bill stayed stuck.

The most controversial of its provisions lifts the state cap on charter schools in underperforming districts. Some cities, including Boston, are bumping up against their limits, even as about 17,000 families remain on waiting lists, clamoring for charter slots.

But that’s only part of what the bill does. It also provides district schools with more tools to compete against those charters.

Under the law, the worst-performing Level 3 district schools – schools that are in trouble but haven’t yet reached the crisis-status that is Level 4 – would be granted the same flexibility that has helped some of the state’s worst district schools to turn themselves around: longer school days, more autonomy for principals on hiring, and a chance at more funding.

The bill would also allow unlimited in-district charters in struggling districts: These are schools with union teachers and almost all of the flexibility of other charters.

It’s good stuff. But in the six months since the committee began grappling with the act, the charter expansion has dominated discussions. Critics of charter schools worry they’ll pull more students – and their funding – away from district schools. Those district schools continue to get funding for charter students for six years after their departure, but critics say the reimbursement (100 percent of the per pupil cost for the first year, and 25 percent for the next five) is inadequate and hasn’t been fully funded by the Legislature.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether districts are being adequately reimbursed for students they are no longer educating (when a student leaves a charter, on the other hand, her funding follows within months). Still, lawmakers made a promise to reimburse district schools a few years ago, and they have slipped some on that commitment. They should make good on their entire promise.

In any case, the dispute over money should not be holding up this legislation. Yet Education Committee cochair Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz seems stuck on it. She wants the legislation to correct what she sees as the funding imbalance between charters and district schools.

If district schools aren’t fully reimbursed for each student they lose, she suggests, funding for the charters that actually incur the cost of educating those students should be reduced. That’s so unreasonable as to be laughable — a classic case of two wrongs.

Despite appearances, Chang-Diaz says she is not trying to throttle the legislation. “I would not have spent all of this time working on this bill for the last six months if I wasn’t interested in getting it out,” said the Boston Democrat.

We need some leadership here. Perhaps Senate President Therese Murray, and Speaker Robert DeLeo, should step in. Wouldn’t it be nice if the governor, currently off on a trade mission, could spend some political capital to bolster the groundbreaking education reforms he championed so strongly four years ago?

And what of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, that putative charter champion of last year’s campaign, who took every opportunity to call for a cap lift, and to tout his role on the board of a charter school?

Sure, he has spoken in support of more charters when asked, but there has been none of the bully-pulpit pounding he’d led me to expect in a situation like this. I wanted to ask him why, but he didn’t get back to me.

That’s disappointing. It may not seem as pressing or as straightforward as upskirting, but we face the very real prospect of vital education reforms stalling here.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com

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