After many months mulling the issue, the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee couldn’t come to agreement on an education reform bill that expanded the state’s ability to intervene in troubled schools and raised the cap to allow for more charter schools. Thankfully, rather than letting that failure stand, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is determined to push forward. Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh should all now roll up their sleeves and help with that effort.
Responsibility for the education committee’s inaction lies primarily with its Senate chair, Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain. Although Chang-Diaz claims she genuinely hoped to find a way forward, she was under intense pressure from Boston Public Schools parents in her district who don’t want to see any new charter schools. With an important legislative deadline looming, the senator suddenly announced a supposed breakthrough with state Representative Russell Holmes of Boston, a sponsor of legislation to lift the cap on charter schools. But Holmes isn’t even on the education committee, much less its House chair. No wonder, then, that Chang-Diaz’s move was seen not as a serious plan but rather as an effort to get a hot potato out of her hands. House Chair Alice Peisch was right not to go along with a proposal that could have created future havoc for charters.
On Wednesday, the House revived the education-reform effort, sending legislation Peisch drafted to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration and likely debate later in the spring. That bill would extend an array of school-turnaround powers to newly designated “challenge” schools — struggling schools that under current laws are not yet officially designated as “underperforming.”
It would also lift the charter cap modestly for districts in the lowest 10 percent statewide. In those districts, the total spending on charters could go to 23 percent of school spending, from the current 18 percent, by 2023. But to be approved, new charters would either have to use a lottery system that casts a much wider net for potential students or enroll a student body that is at least 75 percent students who are at risk of dropping out or who have dropped out.
Although bolder legislation would be preferable, Peisch’s plan is a reasonable framework for progress. But lawmakers have to be much more resolute in support of change than Chang-Diaz was. Yes, various district-school stakeholders, including the Boston Teachers Union and some parents, oppose any further public dollars going to charters. But whatever financial challenges the district schools face this year, charters aren’t taking money that somehow belongs to traditional schools. Rather, the state funding for charters reflects the cost of educating a student who has left a district school for a charter. What’s more, the state reimbursement formula provides district schools a generous fiscal cushion to help as they adjust for lost students, continuing to pay them for several years for students they are no longer educating.
The smart way for district schools and their stakeholders to respond to charters would be by offering more of what makes those independent public schools appealing, not trying to block their expansion. But whatever course those groups take, lawmakers should view more charters as providing both healthy competition for district schools and important options for underserved urban families.