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Proposal to end charter deadlock on Beacon Hill raises doubts

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz offered a proposal Saturday to break a deadlock on Beacon Hill that could allow more charter schools to open in Boston and other cities.

But charter school advocates immediately dismissed the proposal, describing it as nothing more than a veiled attempt to block the expansion of charter schools. They had previously criticized Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who is cochair of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee, for allegedly blocking legislation that would have allowed for more schools to open.

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Saturday’s proposal from Chang-Diaz came with a hitch: In order for more charter schools to open in a given year, the Legislature would have to reimburse local districts for some of the state aid they lose when students in their communities enroll in charter schools.

Chang-Diaz touted the proposal as a reasonable compromise. In a statement Saturday she said the deal was hashed out with the lead sponsor of the charter school bill, Representative Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat. Chang-Diaz has repeatedly raised concerns about the financial implications on local districts of opening more charter schools.

“The question is, how can we give more room for good operating charter schools to expand without in any way penalizing or disproportionately pulling resources away from children in the district system,” she said in an interview.

But by midafternoon, Chang-Diaz faced a fresh round of criticism from charter school proponents. The Race to the Top Coalition, a group of business, education, and civic leaders, said the proposal would enable the Legislature each year to halt charter school expansion simply by underfunding the reimbursements to local districts.

“What little we know of the current compromise would allow lawmakers to stop the expansion of charters to plan a responsible course of multiyear growth by simply voting to underfund the reimbursement by a single dollar,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Foundation, on behalf of the coalition.

The deal between Chang-Diaz and Holmes comes just three days before the Legislature’s education committee is scheduled to decide whether to support allowing more charter schools in Boston and other cities.

Chang-Diaz’s cochair, Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, also expressed skepticism about the proposal. Peisch said she had many questions and that the Race to the Top Coalition raised a legitimate concern.

“At this point in time, I don’t support it,” Peisch said. “I appreciate there is an effort to address the impact of expansion on district budgets, but I remain unpersuaded that this is the way to go.”

The bill under consideration includes another concession for local districts in exchange for allowing more charters to open that has broad support. Districts would gain greater flexibility to extend school days, shake up teaching and administrative staffs, and make other changes at schools on the cusp of being declared “underperforming” by the state because of persistently low state standardized test scores.

Funding of charter schools has long been controversial in Massachusetts.

Under state law, every time a student enrolls in a charter school, thousands of dollars in state aid is diverted from his or her hometown district to cover the educational costs. In Boston, the school system is losing $87.5 million in state aid to about two dozen charter schools this year, even after factoring in several million dollars the city receives in state reimbursement for charter school tuition.

The amount of money Boston has been losing to charter schools has grown rapidly since 2010, when the state enacted a law that would essentially lead to the doubling of charter school enrollment in the city. Many charter schools are still adding capacity to enroll all of those students, while lobbying the Legislature for even more seats.

Over the last two years, the Legislature has not fully funded the reimbursements local districts are entitled to under state law.

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