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Mass. Senate rejects bill to raise charter school limit

A measure to lift the state’s cap on the number of charter schools failed by a wide margin in the Massachusetts Senate Wednesday, dooming for now any legislation on the politically fraught issue.

The state House voted to lift the cap in May, but the measure had faced skepticism in the Senate.

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After a spirited debate Wednesday, senators voted 26 to 13 against a proposal backed by Sonia Chang-Diaz that would make the charter expansion contingent on the state fully reimbursing traditional school districts when students transfer to charter schools. The Senate then rejected the House version, 30 to 9.

Charter schools have long been controversial because they do not need to be unionized and are given more flexibility to set their curriculums, budgets, and staffing. Critics worry about their financial impact on local school budgets because students who attend charter schools take with them a certain amount in state aid from their hometown districts.

But supporters point to studies showing that charter schools often achieve better results than traditional public schools and that they are laboratories for innovation. They note that thousands of students are on the wait list for charters in Boston.

Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and chairwoman of the joint committee on education, said the Senate’s ruling left her disappointed.

“It’s a lost opportunity for the Senate and the Legislature to put forth legislation that can help kids in both the charter and district systems,” she said outside the State House Senate chamber.

Chang-Diaz, a former teacher who lives in Jamaica Plain and who has been at the center of the debate, said senators are wary of raising the cap on a system they are skeptical of altogether.

“Despite my best arguments and the fixes in the bill, it’s just something we cannot overcome,” she said.

In the Senate chamber before Wednesday’s vote, she had encouraged her colleagues to raise the cap.

“Can we construct a charter system that will live up to the original goal of being the test kitchen of education for the question: Can someone do this better?” she said. “Yes, we can.”

“We can also choose to leave a charter system that we know is flawed, broken, and to look away from the parent stuck with options that we would never accept for our own children.”

But many senators said they were unwilling to gamble on legislation they said was unproven.

“It sets in motion effects that will continue for decades, and it commits us to large amounts of spending, without spending on ... ways that we know are proven, not just in Massachusetts but all across the country and over districts, to reduce the achievement gap,” said Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who opposed the measure.

Mary Battenfeld, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a grass-roots parent organization that had lobbied against the charter expansion, said she was happy and surprised with the Senate’s decision, especially when groups like hers were pitted against the charter lobby.

“It felt like senators were listening to parents,” she said. “What we heard in the debate was not so much anti-charter as, ‘we need to study this further and understand the impact of a two-tiered system.’ ”

In a statement, the Boston Teachers Union thanked those who fought charter expansion. “This was not a vote for teachers unions, as some might say, but it was a vote for equity and fairness for all children,” it said.

But Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, expressed disappointment in Wednesday’s vote. Chang-Diaz, he said, had promoted a measure that the charter school community could not support.

“The Senate is going to deny high-quality education choices to thousands of families across the state,’’ Kenen said in a phone interview. “The bill had some important proposals that would have made the charter-cap lift null and void before it even started.”

Claire McNeill can be reached at claire.mcneill@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @clairemcneill.
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