Governor Charlie Baker proposed legislation Thursday that would allow more charter schools to open statewide, setting the stage for a Beacon Hill battle on one of the most divisive issues facing lawmakers.
The bill would permit 12 new or expanded charter schools each year but only in districts performing in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests. Such districts include Boston, Fall River, New Bedford, Randolph and Salem, as well as the state’s two districts placed into receivership: Holyoke and Lawrence.
It would also authorize districts to unify enrollment systems to include both charter and district schools, removing roadblocks to plans like the one unveiled last month by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Baker said expanding access to charter schools, especially in low-performing districts, would provide relief for the families of 37,000 students on waiting lists.
“This is Massachusetts. . . . We’re like the home and the founder of public education. We should be able to make sure that every kid in Massachusetts gets the kind of education that they deserve,” Baker said at a news conference outside the Brooke Charter School in Mattapan.
The bill would also allow charter schools — publicly funded schools that often operate independently of local districts — to give preference in their lotteries to applicants who come from low-income families, live in specific areas, have special needs, or are learning English. Critics have contended that charter schools do not do enough to serve special education students and non-native-English speakers.
Baker’s measure faces an uncertain path in the Legislature, where some members said they had no comment because they had not had a chance to read the bill. Last year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have raised the cap limiting such schools to 120 statewide, but a similar measure foundered in the Senate.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who supported the charter expansion effort in 2014, said he looks forward to hearing testimony on the governor’s submission as well as on a refiled version of the previous bill.
“I’m pleased that Governor Baker is similarly focused on finding ways to ensure at-risk students in our lowest performing districts have access to high-quality learning opportunities,” DeLeo said in a statement.
Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has been tight-lipped publicly about his views on charter schools. In a statement Thursday, he said the Senate “is hearing from all sides of this issue and is taking a deep dive into all legislation dealing with charter schools.”
Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said in a phone interview that it is hard to predict the fate of the push to allow more charter schools, with Rosenberg likely to encourage lawmakers to vote their consciences, as his predecessor, Therese Murray, did last year.
Chang-Diaz praised Rosenberg for establishing “a very robust process this fall for the Senate to grapple with education reform policy . . . to give a maximum chance for members to really dig into details.”
Opponents of charter school expansion, including teachers’ unions and many parents, argue that such institutions drain funding from school districts and use rigorous discipline policies to drive out low-performing students, assertions that proponents dispute.
On Thursday, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance — which represents teachers, parents, students, and community members — voiced opposition to Baker’s bill.
“His plan would accelerate the dangerous direction in which we are already headed: toward being a state with a two-tiered education system, one truly public and the other private, but financed with public dollars,” Barbara Madeloni, president of the MTA, said in a statement.
But Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, hailed Baker for showing that charter expansion is not just a priority on his education agenda but a major priority for his administration.
“What he’s doing to elevate this issue is incredibly positive, but it’s also a moderate proposal,” Grogan said. “It doesn’t propose to end the charter cap entirely; it allows for further growth in the inner cities where charters are doing the most good and are the most in-demand.”
Baker’s bill technically would not remove the current cap but would effectively render it moot, allowing the number of charter schools to increase gradually over time.
Such “incremental growth” makes sense, said Christopher Anderson, a past chairman of the state Board of Education and a supporter of a proposed ballot measure that would — like Baker’s bill — authorize the creation or expansion of up to a dozen charter schools per year.
“Rather than having a static cap that ignores the demand for the product,” Anderson said, “the modernization of the state charter school statute would now include . . . what I would term a ‘growth cap,’ which provides for sustained increases in the number of charter schools, but in a way that is eminently manageable.”
If the Legislature approves Baker’s bill or a similar measure, Anderson said, proponents would not pursue the proposed ballot measure.
That measure has helped spur action on Beacon Hill, as has a class-action lawsuit filed separately by three prominent Boston lawyers who argue that the charter cap unfairly denies thousands of students their constitutional right to a quality education.