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Charter school group expands to Boston

A nonprofit that has been mobilizing parents in New York City to push for more charter schools is expanding to Boston, a potential boost for local charter school supporters seeking to rebound after a crushing defeat last month.

Quietly over this summer, Families for Excellent Schools opened a Beacon Street office with six staff members, and has begun to meet with parents neighborhood by neighborhood.

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Education advocates on both sides of the debate are carefully watching to see whether the group will join the push in Massachusetts for more charter schools, and many expect that the group will do so because of its work in New York.

But Families for Excellent Education emphasize that it works with parents from all types of schools on a wide range of issues — educational funding, deteriorating facilities, and safety problems — and any charter school advocacy work would hinge on the wishes of Boston parents who join their organization.

“We take marching orders from our parents,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer. “Our priority will be to listen to parents.”

Families for Excellent Schools is the latest out-of-state organization with a strong pro-charter school agenda to pop up in Boston, joining Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform.

Massachusetts is attractive to such groups because of the state’s more-than-two-decade effort to bolster academic standards, catapulting it into the top of many national exams and other measures. Massachusetts also has been a leader in the charter-school movement, with Boston boasting some of the highest-performing charter schools in the nation.

The migration of these organizations has been welcomed by many in the philanthropic and business communities as well as some parents. But the moves also have drawn ire from grass-roots parent organizations and teacher unions that adamantly oppose charter school expansion and seemingly outside influences in educational policy.

“It’s worrisome,” said Megan Wolf, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a group of Boston parents pushing for better schools but is against charter school expansion. “As a real grass-roots organization, it’s hard to combat millions of dollars coming into another organization.”

Should Families for Excellent Schools enter the charter school debate in the state, it would arrive at a precarious time. Just last month, the Massachusetts Senate overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would have allowed more charter schools to open in Boston and other low-performing districts.

Now, charter school advocates are exploring the idea of bringing a ballot question before voters statewide in 2016 that would seek their approval to raise the cap on charter schools. The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association is polling the issue and talking to potential donors, said the organization’s executive director, Marc Kenen.

He said he would welcome any assistance from Families for Excellent Schools.

“I’m very excited there will be another group focused on empowering public school parents in Boston,” Kenen said. “I think they will be very helpful in giving voice to parents in Boston, both on the charter side and the district side.”

Families for Excellent Schools has been a formidable player in the charter school debate in New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of charter schools. Earlier this year, it launched a campaign called Charters Work to build broader support for charter schools and initiated a multimillion dollar advertising blitz on television championing the successes of charter schools.

That in turn elicited a wave of criticism from charter school opponents, such as Diane Ravitch, who accuse Families for Excellent Schools of pushing the agendas of its hedge-fund supporters rather than that of parents. Locally, Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said Families for Excellent Schools is “just one more organization that is seeking to exploit the charter school privatization movement.

“I hope people look beyond their name, and I expect they will,” Stutman said. “It’s not a group of the people or by the people. It’s corporations.”

But Kittredge insists the organization is more grass roots.

“We will be doing a ton of organizing — a lot of old-fashioned community organizing,” he said. “We build neighborhood chapters, and the neighborhood chapters will drive activity.”

Kittredge, who grew up in Cambridge and Lexington, said part of his motivation for setting up a branch in Boston was his roots here and the opportunity to work with Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Kittredge said Walsh’s focus on income equality and social justice resonated with the organization. Walsh is also a charter school supporter.

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