Governor Charlie Baker made a forceful case for lifting the cap on charter schools at a State House rally Tuesday, formally kicking off what promises to be a bruising battle over one of the most divisive issues on Beacon Hill.
Standing before dozens of parents and teachers dressed in blue T-shirts that read “Great Schools Now,” the governor cast the push for more charters as a struggle for the future of thousands of low-income children locked out of an artificially small charter system.
“For a state that prides itself on being the originator of great public education . . . the fact that we have 37,000 kids on a waiting list to get into the school of their dreams here in the Commonwealth is a disgrace,” he said. “We have an opportunity, a great opportunity, to do something about that.”
A multipronged campaign to lift the cap on charters, public schools that often operate independent of local school systems, has been gathering force for months now.
Three prominent lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, arguing that the cap unfairly denies thousands of students their constitutional right to a quality education. And advocates are proposing a ballot measure, to go before voters in November 2016, that would authorize the creation or expansion of up to a dozen charter schools statewide per year.
The ballot measure’s prospects are unclear. A Boston Globe poll last year found the public opposed to raising the cap, by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent.
But charter school advocates say other polling has been more favorable. And they see additional reasons for optimism. They are expected to outspend opponents. And Baker, if his approval ratings remain high, could be a potent spokesman for the effort.
If advocates can make the case for a viable ballot measure, that could serve as leverage to get something done in the Legislature before the question goes to voters.
There are several charter-related bills pending. And Baker is expected to file his own legislation in the coming weeks.
The House of Representatives passed cap-lift legislation last year. But a similar measure died in the Senate.
In the coming months, then, all eyes will be on the upper chamber, where Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, who took the leadership post in January, has promised a robust conversation on charter schools and broader education reform. Insiders say it’s unclear where the Senate will land. But in the past, cap hikes have been tied to greater spending on traditional public schools.
Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said she could not support any compromise measure that includes a cap lift. Charters, she said, drain money from traditional public schools and do not do enough to serve special needs students and those who are learning English.
The conversation, the union chief said, should be focused on another proposed ballot measure, known as the millionaires’ tax, that would raise taxes on the wealthy and funnel the proceeds to education and transportation.
“It just kind of blows me away that we are willing to talk about [charters] and not talk about a commitment to the common good, and not talk about a commitment to every child, and not talk about something broader and deeper about who we are and how we want to be,” she said.
Baker said Tuesday that he does not care whether the cap is raised through legislation or a ballot measure — a position echoed by Great Schools Massachusetts, the procharter coalition that organized the State House rally.
Speakers at the event included black and Latino parents and students who testified to the importance of charter schools in their lives — and to their frustrations with the cap.
Lee Alexander, 42, a Hyde Park emergency medical technician, said she was concerned that her son, an eighth-grader, would not be able to attend his charter school next year because the cap has prevented it from adding high school grades.
“Because of the cap, Tyree isn’t allowed to continue with his peers in a school that he loves,” she said, adding later, “I ask myself every day, as the school year goes on, what’s standing in our way? Politics are standing in our way.”
Alexander’s speech, like several others Tuesday afternoon, drew an emotional response from the crowd. There were cheers. There were tears. And a film crew, hired by charter advocates, captured every moment.