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Charter school advocates launch $18 million effort

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A business-backed coalition is poised to spend up to $18 million and obliterate state campaign spending records in favor of expanded charter schools, launching its efforts with mail targeted at state Senate districts, including that of Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, three people familiar with the plans said Monday.

The mailings, which proclaim the state's "low-income, urban communities are in crisis," urge recipients to call Rosenberg and Democratic senators who represent urban areas, as the Senate considers legislation that would lift the statutory cap on charter schools.

State law limits the number of charter schools to 120, which critics say has left 37,000 children on waiting lists.


With close ties to Governor Charlie Baker, the procharter school coalition is taking the rare step of publicly pressuring a legislative leader in his own district. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, is one of four senators representing districts where the mailings began arriving late last week, according to organizers.

A person familiar with the plan said the mailings were funded by Families for Excellent Schools, a Manhattan-based nonprofit with deep ties to Wall Street that has waged a similar effort in New York. Families for Excellent Schools is part of an umbrella group gearing up to wage a pricey battle on Beacon Hill that could spill over onto November's ballot.

The umbrella group, Great Schools Massachusetts, has warned legislators that, if the coalition is not satisfied with the legislative results, they will press ahead with a ballot measure. The group is prepared to take to the airwaves, step up its legislative lobbying, and deploy canvassers if a charter school question lands on the ballot, the people familiar with its intentions said.

"Our direct advocacy efforts are part of a comprehensive strategy to encourage the Legislature to pass a meaningful lift on an arbitrary charter school cap," said Eileen O'Connor, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts.


Opponents of lifting the cap include traditional Democratic allies, such as teachers' unions, who argue that charters unfairly drain much-needed resources away from traditional public schools. The debate has particularly roiled the Senate, which rejected charter-school legislation in 2014 and is again considering a proposal to raise the cap.

Rosenberg last week told reporters that such a measure would face "very much an uphill battle" in the chamber and that his district "does not want to see more charter schools."

On Monday, in response to questions about the mailers, Rosenberg chief of staff Natasha Perez said, "He said he's looking forward to continuing to hear from his constituents on this issue."

Great Schools Massachusetts responded a day later detailing how many children in Rosenberg's western Massachusetts district are currently on wait lists for charters.

Baker proposed legislation in October that would annually permit 12 new or expanded charter schools, confined to districts performing in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests, and allow districts to combined enrollment systems to include both charter and district schools.

Teacher unions and many Democrats have resisted Baker's pledge to increase the number of charter schools.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who shares a close working relationship and friendship with Baker, broke with him in October over the issue, saying the governor's proposal moved too quickly and would siphon too much money from public school districts.

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association told the Globe last week that the anticharter forces were "committed" to thwarting Baker's efforts, arguing that new charters will harm existing public schools.


"We're going to put everything we've got into it," she said.

But charters are something of a wedge issue among Massachusetts Democrats. Walsh, who favors a slower and more modest boost of the cap, was a founding board member of a Dorchester charter school, but is also a strong ally of labor unions.

Rosenberg's stance puts him at odds with House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The millions that Great Schools Massachusetts, which announced the addition of nine business groups to its coalition on Monday, appears poised to spend would represent a huge influx of cash into public policy deliberations.

If the group does spend $18 million, that figure would approach the $20.4 million that outside groups spent on the entire 2014 election, chiefly in the governor's race but also in down-ballot contests, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Stakeholders in the same election spent $15.6 million on both sides of a ballot question on casino gambling, establishing a record for a single proposition.

If the procharter group approaches the high end of its estimated spending, together with the teacher unions' spending, they would likely blow past that mark.

"It would represent a significant, significant player in the Boston market," said Daniel F. Cence, a veteran Boston political strategist who has advised ballot campaigns before but is not involved in the charter push. "It's without question instantly the gorilla in the room and larger than anybody has spent on a campaign like that."


Depending on how the coalition decides to spend its money, Cence said, that type of financing that could pay for heavy electronic advertising in addition to "a Cadillac ground campaign."

The lead outside consultant for Great Schools Massachusetts is Keyser Public Strategies, whose president, Will Keyser, was Baker's chief campaign strategist and remains a close political adviser. While Baker has cultivated relationships with top Democrats on Beacon Hill, that sets up a potentially awkward situation with Rosenberg as Baker allies work to cause trouble for the Senate president back home.

Rosenberg is not the only member targeted. Senators Sal DiDomenico of Everett; Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, Senate chairwoman of the Education Committee; and Barbara L'Italien of Andover all represent urban areas where the mailers hit. L'Italien's seat covers Lawrence.

Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.