Metro

Unions want voters to decide on charter school cap

A group that includes the state’s largest teachers unions has sent a pointed message to legislators: Don’t lift the cap on charter schools. We can beat the issue at the ballot in 2016.

In a letter to all 200 state lawmakers, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance flatly rejects the argument echoed by many on Beacon Hill that it would be better for the Legislature to pass a small increase in the number of charter schools rather than have voters approve a more sweeping ballot question that would dramatically expand their ranks.

“We speak with one voice in response to this threat: Enough,” the alliance wrote, in a letter quietly distributed last week and signed by the leaders of 22 groups, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Boston Teachers Union, and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “We cannot compromise out of fear.”

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The coalition acknowledged that if lawmakers reject legislative proposals to raise the charter cap, including those supported by Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh, it would almost certainly mean the issue will be decided by voters next year.

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But the coalition wrote that it was prepared to defeat the ballot question in hopes of settling the long-running charter debate once and for all.

“We are prepared to take on that fight because, while we know we will be outspent by the well-funded corporate- and foundation-backed pro-charter forces, we believe we will win,” the group wrote. “Our research shows that a growing number of voters share our concerns about the ways charter schools are cannibalizing our district public schools.”

The alliance circulated its letter on Oct. 27, the same day that Great Schools Massachusetts, a procharter group, announced that it had collected more than 100,000 signatures, well in excess of the number needed to put a cap lift on the ballot in 2016.

Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, responded on Monday by pointing to a poll commissioned in June by Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group, indicating that 67 percent of Massachusetts residents support changing state law to allow more charter schools.

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“It’s no surprise that special interests putting adults before children are denying the facts: two-thirds of Massachusetts voters support a bold cap lift so that 37,000 families stranded on waitlists can access the public schools they want,” she said in a statement. “We believe the Senate will stand with these families before the end of legislative session.”

Independent polling suggests the electorate is sharply divided over the issue. An August 2014 Boston Globe poll found that 47 percent of respondents opposed raising the cap, while 43 percent supported an increase.

The ready-for-battle message from the Education Justice Alliance reflects a strain of growing militancy within the teachers’ union movement in Massachusetts and nationally.

Russ Davis, a spokesman for the alliance, said the group believes that any legislation to lift the cap would not represent a compromise, but would only lead to further demands for more charter schools in the years ahead. He pointed out that state legislators last raised the cap in 2010.

“Our experience with these folks is they’re not going to be satisfied with whatever they’ve got,” he said.

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He said the group has not discussed how much it is prepared to spend to defeat the ballot question. He added, however, “we wouldn’t have sent the letter if we didn’t feel like the resources are there that are necessary.”

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