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Momentum for new charter schools stalls

Four years after a wave of support for charter schools swept through the State House, fueled by a competition for federal dollars, the momentum appears to have faded.

State lawmakers originally planned to unveil a bill to increase the number of charter schools in Boston and other cities last fall, but five months later they have yet to produce any legislation, with time running out on the legislative calendar.

One of the key lawmakers reluctant to move forward with the bill is Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, who is concerned that allowing more charter schools could drain resources from traditional public schools, some of which have been forced to make cuts this year.


The inaction could threaten one of the stated policy priorities of new Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whom Chang-Diaz endorsed in last year’s election. During the campaign, Walsh often highlighted his support for charter schools to rebut critics who said he would walk in lockstep with unions, which oppose the schools.

Charter school advocates say they emerged from a meeting last week with Chang-Diaz with little hope that she will release the bill before a March 19 deadline to move it from her committee to the full Legislature.

“It was a very discouraging meeting,” said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports more charter schools. “It did not appear that they were close to having a bill to put forward, and time is running very short.”

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.


Supporters point to studies showing that charter schools often achieve better results than traditional public schools, and they note that 16,800 students are on the wait list for charters in Boston.

Chang-Diaz said she is not philosophically opposed to the schools. She pointed out that she was among those who voted for a 2010 law that allowed more charter schools in Massachusetts. But the political dynamic was very different then.

At the time, President Obama was leading a national competition, known as Race to the Top, for more charter schools, using the promise of additional federal aid to help persuade reluctant Democrats to embrace the schools.

Governor Deval Patrick campaigned vigorously for the bill and celebrated the $250 million in federal funding that came from the Obama administration. Mayor Thomas M. Menino was also a vocal proponent.

This year there is no federal money being awarded to states that allow more charter schools, and Patrick has not made the issue a top priority. And while Walsh has met with Chang-Diaz and other legislators working on the bill, he has not openly campaigned for it.

“There isn’t the sense of urgency that was there” in 2010, said Paul S. Reville, a charter school supporter who was the state education secretary at the time. “These are tough issues for the Legislature to approach, and I don’t know how strong the appetite is to pay the price again with another bill like this.”

Chang-Diaz said she is concerned that the state has not fully funded a program that pays cities and towns a portion of the educational costs for students who leave the local school system to enroll in a charter school.


She also pointed out that although charter schools have dramatically diversified their student bodies in recent years, they are still not educating as many students with limited English skills and special needs as traditional public schools.

Federal education aid could also dry up, further squeezing school budgets, she said. One of the public schools in Boston most threatened by recent budget cuts — Curley K-8 — is in Chang-Diaz’s district.

“I want to figure out how to get to yes on giving more room for charter operators that are doing really well to expand,” she said. “How do I do that without doing harm, or taking tools out of the toolbox, of district schools . . . that are making great progress?”

Walsh’s office released a statement saying the mayor is also concerned that the state is not fully funding the charter school reimbursement program.

“The mayor has consistently expressed his support for lifting the cap on charter schools, while recognizing the need to raise the reimbursement rate for the city of Boston at the same time,” the statement said. “He remains committed to finding diverse solutions to ensure the strongest educational foundation for every single student in Boston.”

The mayor has met privately with Chang-Diaz and her House counterpart, Alice Hanlon Peisch of Wellesley, as they struggle to write the bill.


He has been “generally supportive of the direction we are going in,” Peisch said. But, “as is often the case, the devil is in the details and we haven’t worked those out.”

Peisch said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the Education Committee will produce a bill, which could include less controversial changes that give school districts more power to overhaul schools that are at risk of failing. But she is not sure the bill will lift the cap on charter schools.

“I am open to doing something to allow more opportunities for students that could, among others things, include a cap lift,” Peisch said. “It’s a question of how, how much, and the specifics of exactly how we get there.”

Union leaders said it appears the drive to allow more charter schools may have stalled.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s an awful lot of legislators who are interested in a general cap lift,” said Paul F. Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “They have the same concerns: that these schools are not necessarily serving all children, and they’re not the panacea.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@g lobe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.