The antagonists in a bitter feud over lifting the state's cap on charter schools appear to be careening toward a winner-take-all contest at the ballot box in November, with both sides skeptical of the Legislature's attempt to craft a compromise before then.
The push for a compromise is playing out in private meetings in the Senate president's office, where four senators gather on Wednesday afternoons to write legislation acceptable to foes and advocates of charter schools.
If they succeed, voters won't see the charter expansion question on their November ballot, and the state will have avoided perhaps the most costly and divisive ballot fight in state history.
But even the senators involved seem unsure that they can craft a bill that will mollify both sides, and make its way through a deeply divided Legislature.
"It's not a question of whether we can thread the needle," said Senator Daniel A. Wolf, a Harwich Democrat. "It's a question of whether this needle even has an eye in it."
Advocates on both sides are looking ahead to — even hoping for — a November ballot fight, in part because each side is confident it will win at the polls.
The proposed ballot measure would allow for the creation or expansion of 12 charter schools per year, with a preference for proposals in the lowest-performing districts, adding significantly to the state's existing stock of 81 charters.
Proponents, who have pledged to spend up to $12 million on a ballot campaign, have the financial backing of some of the wealthiest business leaders in New England, including Fidelity Investments chief executive Abigail Johnson and New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft.
They also have the support of Governor Charlie Baker, who is popular with voters. And they say their internal polling shows the public backing charter expansion by a wide margin.
Opponents say their polling shows the ballot measure is on shaky ground. And the leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a prime mover in the opposition, also is pledging heavy spending.
"We want to go to the ballot box, that's what our poll numbers are telling us," said Barbara Madeloni, president of the union. "I really think the narrative about charter schools is shifting."
Charter schools have long been controversial because they have a freer hand with curriculum and budgets than traditional public schools and most are not unionized.
Proponents point to research showing that Massachusetts charter schools are some of the strongest in the nation. And with 34,000 students on charter school waiting lists — many of them in poor, urban areas — they call expanded access a matter of civil rights.
The two sides, however far apart, have come to accommodations in the past.
In 1993, the Legislature approved the state's first charter schools even as it poured hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools of all kinds — part of a sweeping education reform law credited with making Massachusetts schools the best performing in the country.
And in 2010, at the end of the Great Recession, lawmakers raised the cap on charter schools as part of a successful bid to win $250 million in federal education funds through President Obama's "Race to the Top" grant competition.
Now, though, the urgency of the recession has receded, federal grants are no more, and the debate is more narrowly focused on charter schools, allowing for less of the horse-trading typical of big education bills.
"It's the pure charter play this time," said Martha "Marty" Walz, a management and public affairs consultant who helped usher the 2010 bill into law as cochairwoman of the Legislature's education committee.
Baker has offered a small sweetener for school districts leery of charter school expansion.
Under current law, districts that lose students to charter schools are entitled to temporary reimbursements from the state to cushion the financial blow. And the governor, in his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, has called for a $20 million increase in the pot of money available for those reimbursements.
But it does not look like enough to mollify charter school critics and head off the ballot fight.
Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has offered more enticements.
The Senate, he says, will look not just at expanding the number of charter schools allowed in the state, but at a wide range of issues that reflect critics' concerns about charters — from financing, to governance, to admission and retention of hard-to-educate populations, like special needs students and English language learners.
The approach does not sit well with charter school supporters.
"We have the highest-performing public charter school sector in the nation," said Mary Jo Meisner, executive vice president of communications at the Boston Foundation, which has been a strong charter advocate. "Opening that up to radical change is a scary thought."
Charter school advocates point to data showing that the schools have made substantial progress on recruiting and retaining hard-to-educate students in recent years. And they say some of the critics' proposals — like making charter school funding a separate line item in the budget, subject to whims of legislators — would be "poison pills" they could not accept in a Senate bill.
Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat and charter school critic who serves on the four-member working group attempting to forge a compromise, says the Senate should not be subject to the dictates of charter advocates — even if those advocates are threatening to spend up to $6 million on the legislative battle and $12 million on the ballot fight. The precedent, she argues, would be a bad one.
"If a bully comes and asks for your lunch money one day and you give it to him, does that keep him from coming back the next day?" Jehlen said.
Charter school advocates insist they are open to some give-and-take. And with a charter-friendly House of Representatives and governor, they have not given up all hope of a legislative compromise.
But if they refuse to bend on some of the critics' central demands and push the fight to the ballot, they will be taking a risk. Failure at the polls, they acknowledge, would effectively kill the push to raise the state cap on charter schools for years to come.
Opponents keyed on a ballot fight face some risk as well. Stepping back from legislative negotiations means forfeiting a chance to win some of the changes in charter school law critics have long sought.
"It's a real gamble for both sides [to take the issue to the ballot]," said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who is cochairwoman of the Legislature's education committee and serves on the working group trying to hash out a compromise. "And more importantly, it's a real gamble for the Commonwealth and for kids."