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State declines to back new independent charter schools

Massachusetts education officials, for the first time in 15 years, announced Friday that they had rejected all proposals for new independently run charter schools, bringing the charter-school movement to a screeching halt.

Proposals submitted by two finalists — the fledgling New Heights Charter School of Brockton and Academy for the Whole Child in Fitchburg — were deemed unviable after several months of review by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The state did not identify the deficiencies in the applications.

In an interview, Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he was reluctant to share the reasons because the applicants had not yet been informed of the shortcomings in their proposals. But in general, Chester said, the department considers a number of variables, such as the potential success of academic programs and the viability of the organizations proposing a charter school.

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“In both cases, there were substantial deficiencies in outlining a plan in sufficient detail to give us confidence they thought through everything to have a chance at success,” he said. “We set a high bar on what it takes to become a charter school.”

Chester, however, is recommending that the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approve proposals for two new in-district charter schools, Bentley Academy in Salem and UP Academy in Springfield. In-district charter schools operate with minimal oversight from local school systems, while independent charter schools operate with full autonomy.

The rejections top off one of the most turbulent charter-school application cycles in recent years, which raised questions about the fairness of the process.

Shortly before the first round of charter school proposals was due last summer, the state education board changed the formula used to determine where new charter schools can open.

The change eventually knocked both the Brockton and Fitchburg proposals out of consideration in October, after they were named the only two finalists. That drew the ire of charter school advocates, who decried the possibility that no new independent charter school proposals would be moving forward and accused state officials of unnecessarily tinkering with the formula.

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Fitchburg reworked its application to include more low-performing school systems, enabling it to re-emerge as a finalist in November, while the state education board granted the Brockton proposal a waiver later that month in recognition that the formula change came too quickly.

The last-minute finagling set off strong opposition from local school systems, which opposed the charter school applications.

Omari Walker, president of the Resiliency Foundation, a nonprofit behind the New Heights proposal, said Friday he was “deeply disappointed” by the commissioner’s decision, noting that more than 300 families had planned to send their children to the new school.

“We raised the hopes and expectations for our students and families, and not to be approved is a travesty,” Walker said.

But Kathleen Smith, superintendent of the Brockton schools, said she had many concerns about the charter school, particularly whether it was committed to teaching students with disabilities or limited fluency in English.

”We felt this was not the right charter school at this time,” she said.

Connie Verge, the proposed executive director of the Academy for the Whole Child, said organizers will try to seek approval again next year.

“It’s a very big disapointment,” she said of the commissioner’s decision. “There is a need here and we feel we have a wonderful school to offer.”

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Sean Walker, vice president of the Fitchburg Education Association, which opposed the charter school, said he was happy with the commissioner’s decision.

“We see the decision as an affirmation of the solid work that Fitchburg public schools are doing and the progress we are making,” he said.

Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are intended to be laboratories of educational innovation. They operate under looser state regulations than traditional schools and are rarely unionized.

Seventy operate independently of local school systems, while 10 others operate in partnership with a school district.

Many charter schools have among the highest MCAS scores, but some struggle academically and more than a dozen have closed, typically because of low test scores or financial problems. School systems tend to oppose independent charter schools because they lose state aid for every student from their systems who attends.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said the current rejections mean that many students will continue to be “stuck in underperforming schools in those districts.”

“Local-elected and school officials in those communities, who mounted vigorous campaigns against these proposals, may celebrate this decision,” Kenen said in a statement, “but there are no winners when low-income parents are left with no choices other than failing district schools.”

That comment drew a sharp rebuke from Chester.

“I reject the idea that students in Brockton and Fitchburg are condemned to a poor education,” Chester said. “Both districts have made considerable strides.”

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