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State Senate approves charter bill

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The state Senate passed legislation Thursday night designed to head off a high-profile ballot fight over charter schools, but faced quick criticism from Governor Charlie Baker's administration and other key players.

The bill would give advocates the chance to open more charter schools in Boston and other low-performing districts, while putting tighter restrictions on how charters operate across Massachusetts.

Governor Charlie Baker is a strong charter school proponent. And Jim Peyser, his education secretary, said in a statement Thursday night that the Senate bill "offers no relief to the 34,000 children stuck on wait lists" for charter schools.

The focus now shifts to the House of Representatives, which is expected to pass legislation more acceptable to charter school proponents. The House and Senate would then work to hammer out a compromise.

The question hanging over Beacon Hill is whether the two chambers can bridge what are expected to be significant differences and produce a compromise that will win final passage in the House and Senate and get the governor’s signature.

If lawmakers fail, voters will likely settle the matter in November. Proponents are pushing a ballot measure that would allow for the creation or expansion of 12 charter schools per year, with a preference for proposals in the lowest-performing districts.


The measure, if approved, would clear the way for significant additions to the state's existing stock of 81 charter schools.

Both sides in the increasingly bitter debate over charters have signaled for months that they would eschew a legislative compromise and seek an all-or-nothing fight at the ballot box. And they sent those signals anew Thursday night.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in a statement that "the charter community stood ready to work with the Legislature on a bill that would improve district schools and increase the number of charters" but "this bill is a not a serious attempt to expand educational opportunities."

Eileen O'Connor, a spokeswoman for pro-charter group Great Schools Massachusetts, lamented the restrictions the bill would place on existing charter schools "under the guise of 'reforming' what are the highest performing charter schools in the nation."

Save Our Public Schools, a coalition of teachers unions and liberal advocacy groups, points out that charter schools divert millions of dollars in state funding from traditional public schools. And in a statement Thursday night, the group said the Senate bill would allow for “the expansion of a separate and unequal education system.”

The legislation, first unveiled a week ago, has won praise from some superintendents and other educators who argue that it is a thoughtful compromise on a thorny issue. And Senate passage is a victory for Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg.


"This bill expands innovation for all schools and takes the lessons we have learned from 20 years of charter schools in Massachusetts and brings necessary reforms in admissions, funding, transparency, and governance," Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said in a statement Thursday night.

Just two years ago, the Senate rejected a measure lifting the state's cap on charter schools by a wide margin. Rosenberg, after consulting with Democratic senators one-by-one, decided to take a run at a legislative compromise.

He convened a group of four senators with a range of views on charter schools — what some called a "team of rivals" — who came up with an intricate compromise.

The measure tied a gradual expansion of charter schools in the state's lowest-performing districts to roughly $1.4 billion in new spending, over seven years, for all public schools — traditional and charter alike.

The idea was to bring the two sides together. A vote for more money for education, under this scheme, was a vote to lift the state’s cap on charter schools. That device, combined with some amendments to the bill that won over a few skeptics, was enough to push the bill through the Senate on a 22-13 vote.

It is unclear, though, whether it will serve as the basis for a successful compromise with the House.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.