Lawmakers pitched from both sides of charter school debate

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STATE HOUSE — Charter schools and public school districts were separately hailed Tuesday as the best method of educating disadvantaged or struggling students as lawmakers listened to testimony calling for either an increase or halt in charter school growth.

Gov. Charlie Baker was among the hundreds who packed an Education Committee hearing to speak or show support, testifying on a bill he filed (H 3804) that would allow the addition of up to 12 new charter schools or expansions annually above existing caps, focusing on low-performing districts. The cap proposal, Baker said, is intended to increase the educational opportunities available to all students.

Baker, a former board member for the Phoenix Charter Academy Network, said he recognizes there are many viewpoints around charter schools and said the administration is willing to work with committee members and the public, but not to “let the clock tick.”

“The time is already long past to address this issue,” Baker said. “If you enacted this legislation tomorrow, most of the 37,000 children who currently reside on charter school waiting lists would never find their way into a charter school. Those parents would probably say – with great force and legitimacy – that this is far too little for them and for their kids. And they would be right.”

[Watch: Baker Testimony]

Baker’s testimony was met with cheers from charter school staff and parents, who broke into applause several times as he spoke.

The governor’s comments were also met with criticism from public school administrators and other elected officials, who said a focus on charter schools creates a two-tiered system instead of improving educational opportunities for students in all type of schools.

“I’m amazed that the governor could sit here or stand here and push for legislation that is not consistent with what his mandate is as governor of all the people,” said Mel King, a former state representative. “It’s not about charter schools, it’s about whether or not your responsibility is to all the children, and not a select few of the children. If you get that right, you work to make sure that the schools every place in the state are the best for all the children.”

Independent public schools that operate under five-year charters issued by the state, charter schools are organized around a central theme, mission, curriculum or teaching method. The schools control their own budgets and staff and can lose their charters if they do not demonstrate good results within five years, according to the state Department of Education.

Education Committee members heard testimony that painted dueling pictures of charter schools as institutions either with harsh discipline policies or where school officials work with parents to help students with behavioral problems remain in class. Stories of previously struggling students flourishing in charter classrooms were countered by stories of students who left after charter policies restricted their growth.

The debate around charter schools is one where the battles are determined “almost entirely by political power, not by evidence,” Auditor Suzanne Bump said, telling the committee that unreliable data kept her office from being able to determine whether charter schools and sending districts shared similar demographics and whether there were measurable differences in the academic outcomes.

“If evidence were really guiding this debate, there would by now have been widespread adoption of the one best practice from charter schools that is proven to make a difference: a longer school day,” Bump said. “But those holding the public purse strings, taxpayers and politicians alike, don’t want to make the financial investment that that reform entails. Instead, we continue with this zero-sum game.”

Sen. Marc Pacheco, who sponsored a bill (S 326) that would institute a moratorium on charter schools until 2018, said that the 1993 education reform authorizing charter schools in Massachusetts intended the schools to serve as innovation labs that would test out new methods so that successes could be adopted by school districts.

Charter school techniques like extended days and diagnostic testing remain out-of-reach for many traditional public schools faced with tight budgets and minimal increases in state aid, Pacheco said. He suggested that the funds allocated to charter schools could instead be reinvested in the broader public education system, a theme touched on by many who spoke against lifting the cap.

“Let us put a hold on expanding any additional charter schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until we can figure out how to pay for them in a way that doesn’t help some students by hurting all the rest,” Pacheco said.

The current cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is 120, up from the original 25 authorized in 1993. The state has approved 106 of the 421 charter applications filed since 1994, 81 of which are still operating, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former state representative testifying before a legislative committee for the first time in his new elected position, said Baker’s proposal and a ballot question that would authorize similar growth provide only “incomplete solutions.”

Cautioning against growing the charter system too quickly, Walsh called for a more gradual lift to the charter cap, and for the state to treat charter school growth as a “financial priority” while reconsidering how charter schools are funded. Charter school seats in underperforming districts are currenly capped at 18 percent of net school spending in that district. Walsh called for the cap to be raised gradually to 23 percent over 10 years.

“I know many are calling for the cap to be raised even higher or lifted completely,” Walsh said. “I am convinced that such dramatic changes would be reckless under the current funding mechanism and otherwise under any circumstance. The cap should be raised at a level that does not destabilize school districts or public charter schools.”

[Watch: Walsh Testimony]

Teachers union representatives, speaking in support of a moratorium on charters, said that while charter schools educate only a small portion of the state’s students, they are receiving a growing share of funding that leaves some district schools financially strapped.

“In effect what is happening is that in public schools, students are being cheated, particularly the poor kids,” said Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “We are nowhere close to the promise of living up to the promise of educating our poor kids.”

Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan, whose organization supports charter school growth, said that hearing both Baker and Walsh express the idea that funding concerns can be worked out gave him confidence that a solution could be found.

“I think the dollars can be worked out, but here again, you have to challenge an assertion that’s been made over and over again that the money’s being taken away,” Grogan told the News Service. “The money’s following the children.”

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who presides over the branch where chapter school cap legislation failed last year, said Tuesday he hopes to determine by Thanksgiving whether there’s an appetite among his members to pursue charter school legislation this session, or step back and let cap lift proponents take the fight to the ballot in 2016.

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service