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The changing politics of charter schools

SAD NEWS for the cautious, quiescent, and status quo-inclined: Inertia and inaction are no longer effective options on charter schools.

That’s a sea change. Since a modest charter-school cap lift foundered in the state Senate last summer, the Legislature has shown little inclination to revisit the issue. Senate education chairwoman Sonia Chang-Diaz has made it clear she’d prefer to focus on other matters. Nor is it a priority for Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who doesn’t yet seem fully conversant with all the complex contours of the issue. Meanwhile, Speaker Robert DeLeo, who pushed the House to take a pro-charter vote in 2014 only to see the bill fail in the Senate, has said that this time around, the other chamber should go first.


Taken together, that’s been a political prescription for inaction.

But by announcing an effort to put a charter-school question on the November 2016 ballot, charter advocates have changed that dynamic. Their measure would allow 12 new charters a year, which would not count against the current cap, with a preference for those targeted for the lowest-performing districts.

That effort looks to be well-funded and serious. One indication: It comes at the strong urging of Governor Charlie Baker, who believes the success charters have demonstrated with underprivileged kids is so compelling that expanding charter slots is a moral imperative. What’s more, Baker intends to file a charter bill of his own. The message is clear: The popular governor plans to push hard, first for legislative action and then for the ballot question if he fails to get what he wants.

With the ballot initiative increasing the leverage for legislative action, one could easily see DeLeo aiding Baker’s legislative efforts. The speaker, after all, delights in positioning the House as Baker’s reform ally — and the Senate as the slower-moving, reform-resistant chamber.


If DeLeo does, that would present a real test for Rosenberg. Does he side with urban minority families, who want more education options, or with the teachers unions, which see charters as a dire threat because they aren’t automatically union schools?

Senators could just say no, as they did last year. Yet with a ballot question looming, charter opponents and skeptics will have to do some hard thinking. Would they accede to legislation that increases charters but still includes an overall cap? Or, as Clint Eastwood put it, do they feel lucky? That is, are they willing to gamble that they can win the ballot fight?

That’s a particularly interesting question given the leftward tack the Massachusetts Teachers Association has taken since President Barbara Madeloni assumed the helm. Previous president Paul Toner opted for a place at the table negotiating the so-called “smart cap lift” of 2010.

However, it’s difficult to see Madeloni, a vocal opponent of charters, taking part in negotiations over a cap lift. On the other hand, a legislative lift passed over the MTA’s active opposition would signal a big loss of clout for the union.

Another person to watch: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. During the 2013 mayoral campaign, Walsh insisted that there was no daylight between him and rival John Connolly, who favored a charter-cap increase. But Walsh stayed low in last year’s charter-cap effort. If the mayor ducks this one as well, that would be telling commentary on his repeated campaign declarations. His best bet may be to join Baker in pursuit of compromise legislation.


Regardless of the decisions the various political actors make, however, their strategic calculations have suddenly become much more complex.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.


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