Mass. Senate releases charter school overhaul bill

Gov. baker criticizes measure that would maintain state cap

  • The Four Rivers Public Charter School in Greenfield. recorder file photo

Associated Press
Published: 3/31/2016 9:26:21 PM

BOSTON — Massachusetts Senate leaders have unveiled a bill that they say would allow more charter schools that serve at-risk students while largely maintaining the existing statewide cap on the schools.

The proposal was swiftly criticized by charter school backers, including Gov. Charlie Baker.

The bill would boost spending on charter schools in lower performing districts while requiring more public disclosure of the schools’ finances, policies, contracts and board meetings. Beginning in two years, the bill would also tie increases in charter schools seats to increases in state education aid.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from local school boards. Supporters say they offer high-quality educational alternatives for students but critics argue they drain financial resources from traditional public schools and fail to adequately serve certain groups of students.

The Senate is expected to debate the bill next week.

Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg said the bill builds on lessons the state has learned from 20 years of charter schools.

He said the stakes for students are too high to let the answers be decided by a ballot question which he said only addresses the needs of the less than 10 percent of students in Massachusetts who attend or are seeking seats at charter schools.

“The remaining over 90 percent of students have just as much at stake,” he said.

Lawmakers are trying to get a charter school bill to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk ahead of a proposed question for the November ballot that would add up to a dozen new or expanded charters each year outside of existing state caps.

Even if it’s approved by both legislative chambers, the Senate bill is unlikely to resolve the state’s heated debate about the future of charter schools or persuade charter school supporters from backing off their plans to put the question before voters in the fall.

Baker, a longtime fan of charter schools, criticized the Senate bill saying it offers little relief to 34,000 students currently waiting to get into a charter school.

He also said the proposed Senate mandates for local spending could place a further burden on taxpayers.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to provide high quality educational options for these tens of thousands of kids and families, most who live in low-income urban neighborhoods,” Baker said in a statement.

Baker has proposed his own bill to let the state add new charter schools on an annual basis outside of state caps with a focus on high-need and low-income students.

The issue has pitted charter school activists against the state’s teachers unions.

Massachusetts Charter Public School Association Executive Director Marc Kenen said the Senate bill is designed to freeze the growth of charter schools in the state.

“In effect, the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposal would deny tens of thousands of families fair and equal access to a high quality public education,” he said.

Save Our Public Schools, the committee formed to oppose the charter school ballot question, said the bill “would perpetuate the very serious problem inherent in lifting the cap yet again: the expansion of a separate and unequal system.”

A House-passed bill that would have gradually raised charter school limits in Boston and other urban communities died in the Senate’s last legislative session.

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