Flanked by Baker, charter school proponents lobby Beacon Hill lawmakers
By Evan Lips | January 19, 2016, 18:50 EST
BOSTON — Advocates in favor of lifting the legislative cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Massachusetts swarmed Beacon Hill on Tuesday to lobby lawmakers and received an assist from Gov. Charlie Baker in the process.
Clutching an oversized binder stuffed with the signatures of 25,000 urging state pols to pass legislation removing the charter school cap, Baker addressed a crowd of advocates and later signed a ceremonial banner the group toted to the State House and unfurled inside Nurses’ Hall.
“We were one of the first states in the country to embark on this idea to give these experimental schools a chance to see what they could do,” Baker said, referring to the landmark state legislation passed in 1993.
“It’s not an experiment any more, it’s not a demonstration, it’s not a ‘what-if’ — after 20 years we have overwhelming evidence: class after class after class of kids, parents and families who’ve found what they were looking for.”
Baker said the enormous banner represents the 37,000 families statewide who are still relegated to charter school waiting lists.
State law limits both the number of public charter schools, taxpayer-funded schools that are allowed to operate more independently than traditional public schools,
and the percentage of school districts’ funding that can be spent on charters. About 3 percent of Massachusetts students attend the state’s 80 public charter schools.
This past summer it was unclear which path charter school advocates would take in their quest to lift the state’s cap, as proponents weighed whether to launch a ballot initiative effort, file a lawsuit or lobby for new legislation. Advocates wound up pursuing all three options. In September, attorneys representing students denied seats in Boston charter schools filed a class-action lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court, naming Secretary of Education James A. Peyser and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as defendants.
In December, the pro-charter group Great Schools Massachusetts submitted more than the 64,750 voter signatures required to move a ballot initiative forward.
What is still in play is whether there is enough support for the state Senate pass cap-lifting legislation, which is backed by Baker.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) has indicated he will know the answer by the beginning of next month. Earlier this month Rosenberg did not seem positive, describing the possibility as “very much an uphill battle.”
Baker on Tuesday said if charter schools “were a therapy that works as well as it works, people would clamor for it.”
“Yet here we struggle to create the kind of open opportunity that so many of these kids and their families deserve.”
Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, was not as enthusiastic. Madeloni, whose organization stands in lockstep opposition to the proposal, described charter schools as institutions which “suck funds out of public education.”
Madeloni also painted a less-than-rosy portrait of charter school performance.
“The narrative about charter schools is already changing,” she told reporters Tuesday. “We see that parents, students — who’ve actually been to charter schools and are currently in charter schools — understand that they are not meeting the needs of all of our students.”
Yet opponents of lifting the cap have been noticeably less visible than charter school organizations like Great Schools Massachusetts, who rallied on the Boston Common in November and took Beacon Hill by storm on Tuesday donning bright blue shirts as they canvassed various legislative offices.
“That’s called mobilization; that’s not called organization,” said Madeloni. “We know how to organize.”
Madeloni added that MTA plans to begin organizing within communities.
“That’s where the real power lies,” she noted.
Madeloni also said elected officials are questioning now more than ever the funding being diverted away from public schools.
“We see lawmakers beginning to understand just how much money is being sucked from their schools and their districts in order to feed the charter schools, which are not serving all children,” Madeloni said. “I have a deep sense that the narrative is changing.”
Yet for Roxbury resident Dawn Foye, a charter school backer whose son is a first-grader enrolled at KIPP Academy, said her son’s learning disability never received the proper attention before he was admitted to a charter school.
“My mission was to find him a great school,” Foye told supporters. “When we found Brandon got accepted to KIPP it was just like hitting the Powerball because that was the lottery that would change our lives.”
Foye said the charter cap will force her son to leave KIPP after grade eight unless it is lifted.
“That’s just wrong,” Foye noted. “These kids can’t wait for the cap to be lifted.”
Baker later said he hopes the state legislature can act before the issue pops up as a ballot initiative but added that if it does he’s make his “point of view clear on it.”
“That said, I would love to see us get this done before the Legislature leaves in August,” Baker noted.
Asked about Rosenberg’s dim view on the possibility that the Senate will propose and pass cap-lifting legislation, Baker said “it’s up to us to continue to make the case that there are many families here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts who we can do right by.”
“We should push it,” he added. “If every time we stopped after somebody said ‘don’t bother it’s not worth the effort’ there’s not a lot that would ever get done around here.”
“I do believe this question, if it ends up on the ballot, will pass,” Baker said.