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Charter schools opponents on Sunday blasted an effort by three prominent lawyers to overturn the state cap on charter schools, calling it misguided and potentially harmful to the vast majority of students who attend traditional public schools.

Leaders of several teachers unions said they vehemently disagree with the lawyers’ argument that the cap relegates children, particularly minority students in poor neighborhoods, to failing district schools and thereby violates their constitutional guarantee of an adequate education.

“Any claim that the charter school cap is the basis of Massachusetts children being denied their civil rights is appalling and deceptive,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “The real threat to our students — and to our democracy — is the two-tiered school system funded by public dollars that charter proponents will go to any lengths to expand.”

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If any civil rights violation exists, it is the lack of adequate funding for traditional public schools, said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

“It’s a civil rights issue for the kids who remain in public schools, not a civil rights issue for those who wish to escape,” he said.

Charters schools have long been controversial because they do not have to be unionized, operate independently of local systems, and are given more flexibility to set curriculums, budgets, and staffing.

Critics worry about charter schools’ financial impact on school system budgets, because students who attend charter schools take with them a certain amount in state aid from their home districts.

This year, the Boston public schools are facing a shortfall of $42 million to $51 million, which could lead to the closure of four schools as well as cuts in transportation, food services, and student counseling.

“I see this as something that’s going to detract from the great bulk of students in our public schools,” said Thomas Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts. He pointed out that only about 4 percent of students in the state attend charter schools.

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Supporters say charter schools have proven to be one of the only alternatives for low-income children and families who are unhappy with the traditional school system and unable to afford private or parochial schools.

The lawyers, Paul F. Ware Jr., Michael B. Keating, and William F. Lee, who are all partners at top law firms, plan to file the pro bono lawsuit on behalf of children who want to attend charter schools but could not find seats and had to enroll in underperforming traditional public schools.

The lawsuit will cite studies, disputed by critics, showing that charter schools often achieve better results than traditional public schools; and will point out that about 40,000 students are on the waiting list for charters statewide, including about 18,000 in Boston.

Massachusetts currently has 80 charter schools, and Boston, with 34, has hit the limit.

“It’s a new development and a wild card that might shake things loose, and we’re in need of that after a very disappointing result” in July, when the state Senate rejected an attempt to raise the cap, said Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, which supports the expansion of charter schools. “I think, if nothing else, it will build moral pressure.”

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, called the lawsuit a major step forward.

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“This is the argument we’ve been making for 30 years, that charter schools are a proven success, and it seems wrong on all levels, legal as well, to not allow more of these schools to flourish,” he said. “I’m hoping that it will encourage the Legislature to come to the table to figure this out.”

Madeloni said she was worried that the defendants will be James A. Peyser, Governor Charlie Baker’s secretary of education, as well as the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. They are being targeted because, as of January, they are responsible for enforcing the law, even though they disagree with it.

Baker is a strong proponent of lifting the cap and Peyser is a nationally known charter school advocate who has served on the boards of three charter school organizations.

“One deep concern is that the lawsuit will be a stacked deck because Governor Charlie Baker and his education secretary, James Peyser, clearly share the views of the attorneys who say they are preparing to file the claim,” Madeloni said. “Any response to a lawsuit on this issue should be handled by the attorney general’s office, which is best positioned to defend the law as it now exists.”

Corey Welford, a spokesman for Attorney General Maura Healey, declined to comment, pointing out that the lawsuit has not been filed yet.

Related:

Poll: Voters aren’t eager for more charter schools

Mass. Senate rejects bill to raise charter school limit

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New charter schools unlikely in Massachusetts


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