Baker takes charter school expansion plan to lawmakers

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BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker will pitch his bid to increase the number of charter schools during a marathon legislative hearing on dozens of education bills Tuesday in the State House.

Under the plan the Republican governor outlined last week, up to 12 new charter schools or expansions of existing institutions could be added each year, with the additions concentrated in the poorest-performing districts. State law currently caps the number of charter schools at 120.

“Every child in the commonwealth deserves the opportunity to access high-quality education regardless of their Zip code or background, and this bill would help make that a reality,” Baker said in a statement Thursday, when he unveiled his proposal. He pointed to a waiting list with 37,000 students who wanted to enroll in a charter school at the start of the current academic year.

While they are all public and financed with taxpayer dollars, there are two types of charter schools operating in Massachusetts, one called a Commonwealth school and the other referred to as a Horace Mann school. The 72 Commonwealth schools permitted by law are given a five-year charter by the state and are overseen by an independent board of trustees, according to Baker’s statement. Charters for the 48 Horace Mann schools must be approved by the local school committee but the boards that oversee them are independent. A charter can be renewed provided a school meets performance standards.

The governor campaigned for election last year partly on promises to expand charter schools statewide as a way to provide children and their parents with free alternatives to failing district schools. He was previously on the board of the Phoenix Academy Charter Network, according to State House News Service.

“As I stand here today, there are 37,000 kids who want to get in to a charter school, 37,000 families who simply want for something bigger and better for their children,” Baker said in unveiling his proposal outside the Brooke Charter School in Mattapan. The school is in the part of Boston represented by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat who co-chairs the House-Senate Joint Education Committee, which will hold today’s hearing.

Baker’s measure would:

  • Allow the state education secretary to approve up to 12 new commonwealth charter schools or expansions each year in districts with performance results that rank in the lowest quarter of all districts in Massachusetts.
  • Let charter schools use a weighted lottery system for admissions, giving an edge to “high need” and low-income children as well as to those from designated geographic regions.
  • Permit charter schools to become part of a choice-based enrollment system within their districts, to take into account parental choice.
  • Facilitate partnerships between high-performing charter schools and district schools that are struggling to maintain adequate performance.

“We have some of the best charter schools in the nation, and this legislation would allow more families access to them, while opening up new opportunities for district-charter partnerships on behalf of communities with the greatest educational challenges,” James Peyser, the state education secretary, said in the statement about Baker’s measure.

Critics, including state teacher unions, say charters siphon resources away from district schools, making it more difficult for poor performers to improve and imperiling those that are successful. They also assert that charter schools underserve students with special needs.

“Most charter schools serve a smaller percentage of English language learners, special education students and economically disadvantaged students than their sending districts,” Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in a statement about Baker’s proposal. “Most lose a significant number of students between the first year of a charter’s program and the last, driving out students who can’t meet their disciplinary demands or whose academic and social needs are significant.” She urged lawmakers to reject Baker’s bid to lift the charter cap.

“His plan would accelerate the dangerous direction in which we are already headed: toward being a state with a two-track education system, one truly public and the other private, but financed with public dollars,” Madeloni said. The union’s website says $419 million in state local aid will be diverted to charter schools in the current fiscal year, although other state funds can replace at least some of that cash.

The union has called for a moratorium on new charter schools, noting that there are pending applications for seven new charter schools in communities across the state. One of the bills expected to be taken up at today’s hearing, from Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) would freeze Commonwealth charter numbers for three years.

The hearing, which starts at 10 a.m. in the Gardner Auditorium, is slated to examine at least 34 House and Senate bills, in addition to Baker’s proposal.