Three years after state lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that can legally operate in Massachusetts, advocates urged lawmakers Tuesday to abolish it, citing a study that found that the schools outperform traditional public schools in the state, particularly in Boston.
The study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 83 percent of Boston charter schools have significantly better gains than their traditional public school peers in reading and math and that no Boston charter schools have significantly lower gains.
In addition, poor black and Hispanic students in Boston charter schools have shown much better performance in reading compared to their poor peers in the city’s traditional public schools.
“To put it bluntly, the charter sector here is the highest quality that we have seen in any of the 29 states or any of the cities that we have looked at,” Edward Cremata, a research associate and coauthor of the report, told the Legislature’s Education Committee. “We find that a student in the charter school [in Boston] gains an additional 12 months in reading every year compared to their traditional public school counterpart and additional 13 months in math.”
The schools, however, remain controversial because they operate with fewer restrictions from the state and almost always employ nonunion teachers.
At the Education Committee hearing, Mayor Thomas M. Menino urged lawmakers to keep the current moratorium on charter schools and to allow more “in-district” charter schools. Those schools are overseen by school districts but can deviate from central office mandates on curriculum, budgets, and scheduling of the school day and year.
In-district charters are also exempt from many workplace rules in teachers contracts, but their teachers still remain part of the union.
To those who want more nonunion charter schools, the mayor issued a challenge: “Come take over a Boston public school and make it an in-
district charter,” he said. “You’ll have a building, be able to teach the kids who are already in that schools. They won’t have to wait for something better. Just promise that you’ll educate all of our kids in schools that need you now.”
A teachers union official also pressed lawmakers to retain the cap, arguing that charter schools undercut traditional public schools, which must educate a range of students, including those who speak English as a second language and have special needs.
“The Commonwealth’s long-established public schools need more resources than they currently have,” said Thomas J. Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “Removing the cap on charter schools will drain money from the very schools that serve all these children from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year.”
The battle lines, however, did not always fall along traditional lines. Representative Martin J. Walsh, a union official who is running for mayor of Boston, urged the Education Committee to raise the cap, despite the opposition from his allies in the labor movement.
“We have lost generation after generation after generation of young people in our city,” said Walsh, who serves on the board of Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. “We can’t afford that anymore.”
Two key lawmakers said they are not sure if they will support the bill to do away with the cap in Boston and other low-performing school districts.
“I’m not a yea or nay yet,” said Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who is Senate chairwoman of the Education Committee. “It’s an open question for me.”
Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who is House chairwoman of the committee, said that while she, too, is undecided on whether to raise the cap, she hopes to grant districts some more power to overhaul low-performing schools.
“You heard a lot of agreement on the need for more flexibility and accountability, and if there’s some way we can address those concerns in a way that’s workable, I’m hopeful we can do that,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick noted that the governor supported the 2010 law that raised the charter cap, but did not say whether Patrick would back a further expansion.
Charter advocates expressed frustration at the persistence of the opposition.
“It would be difficult to imagine in any other walk of life that we know, to have this kind of success and be expressing this kind of ambivalence or even opposition to extending that success,” said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a philanthropic group that pushes for more charter schools. “It’s frankly bewildering.”