Politics

New charter schools bill faces long odds

Women wearing t-shirts that read, “Close the academic gap. Lift the Charter School cap.” lean over a balcony at the State House Thursday.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Women wearing t-shirts that read, “Close the academic gap. Lift the Charter School cap.” lean over a balcony at the State House Thursday.

Voters should get ready for a high-profile ballot fight over charter schools this fall, after a compromise bill meant to avert that fight emerged Thursday to lukewarm reviews from Governor Charlie Baker and other key players.

The Senate legislation attempts to bridge the yawning divide on the issue by giving advocates the green light for more charter schools in Boston and other low-performing districts, while giving critics tighter restrictions on how charter schools operate across the state.

Within a few hours of the legislation’s unveiling, Baker, a Republican who strongly supports charter schools, issued a statement opposing the bill because it doesn’t do enough to expand charters in the state. “The proposal offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools,” he said.

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Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, added that “it imposes onerous new regulations that will shackle the operation of existing charter schools.”

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The failure of the legislation to garner broad support is likely to mean that charter advocates will move forward with a proposed ballot measure that would put the contentious issue squarely in voters’ laps in November. Voters can expect an expensive, hard-fought campaign by both sides.

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

Charter schools have long been controversial because many are not unionized, and they have more autonomy than traditional public schools. Critics worry about the effects on local school district budgets, because students who go to charters take with them thousands of dollars in state aid that would otherwise go to their hometown districts.

The senators who crafted the legislative compromise view the ballot question as an overly aggressive bid for expansion that does little to address longstanding, and in their view, legitimate criticisms of charter schools.

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The bill they released Thursday takes some of those criticisms head-on. Charter operators, for instance, would not be able to open new schools if their student suspension rates are higher than those of their surrounding school districts.

Critics argue that charters are too quick to suspend students, alienating them from school. Charter operators say they use suspensions as “time outs,” helping to build the strong, safe school cultures that parents crave.

The bill would also require charter schools to reserve slots on their boards for teachers and parents.

The legislation pairs the changes with a pledge of roughly $1.4 billion in new funding, over seven years, for all public schools in the state — charters and traditional schools alike.

“We invest in all of our schools, all of our students,” said Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who helped write the bill, at a news conference in the ornate Senate Reading Room Thursday morning.

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The bill would require the Legislature to follow through on that $1.4 billion spending commitment, year after year, in order to trigger the charter school expansion in Boston and other low-performing districts, like Springfield, Chelsea, and Holyoke.

The idea is to get charter school supporters and those more partial to traditional public schools working together: A vote for more money for schools, under this scheme, is also a vote for lifting the state’s cap on charters.

The gambit, as of Thursday evening, did not appear to be working. If charter school proponents sharply criticized the bill, so did charter critics.

Save Our Public Schools, a coalition of teachers unions and liberal advocacy groups opposed to any charter school expansion, said in a statement that charters are “taking hundreds of millions of dollars” from traditional public schools and “given this reality the state should not move to expand their reach.”

The coalition has been signaling for weeks that it would prefer an all-or-nothing ballot fight in November, convinced that a victory there would stop the expansion of charter schools for years to come.

Save Our Public Schools confirmed that approach Thursday. “We continue to oppose any bill that would lift the cap on charter schools and believe the voters should have an opportunity to vote on this issue in November,” the group’s statement read.

Opponents of the legislation should find fertile ground in the Senate, which rejected a measure lifting the state’s cap on charter schools by a wide margin just two years ago.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, who backs the new bill, is counting on its broad scope — pairing the charter school changes with $1.4 billion in additional education spending — to win enough votes for passage.

But even the Senate president’s office acknowledges the vote is likely to be close. If the Senate does pass the measure, the focus would shift to the more charter-friendly House.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, in a statement Thursday, suggested a measure that passed his chamber in 2014 providing for a more accelerated charter expansion in low-performing school districts would be a starting point for House legislation this year.

If both chambers pass bills, they would create a conference committee and try to hammer out a compromise. If something acceptable to charter school proponents emerged, that could head off a ballot fight in November.

But that possibility seems increasingly remote amid the sharp opposition to the Senate bill that emerged Thursday.

One of the most controversial provisions would provide incentives for school districts to create their own charter schools and a variant called “innovation schools.” The effect could be to limit the growth of so-called Commonwealth charter schools, run by outside groups.

Charter school proponents, who consider Commonwealth charters more innovative than the district-controlled alternatives, have serious reservations about that part of the bill. They say they are particularly concerned about its potential impact in Boston.

Laura Oggeri, a spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said in a statement that “further analysis will be required to determine the fiscal and educational impacts the Senate proposal will have in Boston.” Her statement also offered a generally lukewarm assessment of the bill.

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