Charter school campaign claims to have surpassed signature threshold

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STATE HOUSE — On the eve of a high-stakes Senate caucus, activists planning to put a charter school expansion question before voters in November 2016 say they’ve already compiled more than 100,000 signatures, three weeks before those signatures are due to be presented to local offices for certification.

The coalition behind the ballot question also touted a nearly four-month-old poll of 600 likely Massachusetts voters commissioned by a member of the coalition that found 63 percent in favor of adding 12 new charter schools or expansions per year, with 26 percent opposed.

“If the legislature doesn’t take meaningful action by the end of session, we’re confident that the voters will take a stand for the 37,000 families that are on public charter school waiting lists,” Eileen O’Connor, spokesperson for Great Schools Massachusetts, said in a statement.

The state Senate last session rejected a limited, House-approved expansion of charter schools, and senators on Wednesday plan to meet in a private caucus to debate the issue again. The outcome of that internal debate could provide insight into whether the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker can agree on a path for more charter schools and avert what would likely be an expensive and bruising ballot fight.

The House-passed charter bill drew only nine votes of support in the 40-seat Senate last session. Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who took the reins of the chamber this year, has said he wants to determine by Thanksgiving if a charter bill is worth drafting.

Led by the state’s teachers unions, charter school opponents say such schools are unaccountable to local officials and disproportionately pull taxpayer support away from traditional district public schools.

In addition to touting the academic performance of students who attend charter schools, charter supporters say wait lists show parents and students are hungry for an alternative to district schools.

While touting its high volume of voter signatures and ties with parents, the charter campaign didn’t promote the way the signatures were gathered. In response to News Service inquiries, O’Connor said the campaign used volunteers and signature gatherers paid by the campaign. She declined to say how many signatures were gathered by volunteers or how much the paid signature gatherers were compensated.

The poll was conducted by Moore Research at the end of June and survey takers were asked: “One proposal to lift the cap would allow the State Board of Education to authorize up to 12 new public charter schools per year, statewide. Priority would be given to locating new charter schools in districts with the lowest performing schools, defined as districts in the bottom 25% of performance statewide.”

The poll was commissioned by Families for Excellent Schools, a four-year-old New York-based group that organizes parents around education reform issues. The group was co-founded by Jeremiah Kittredge of Brooklyn and aims to influence education policy in several states.

Signatures must be filed with local voter registrars by Nov. 18 and initiative petition sponsors must have at least 64,750 certified voter signatures to keep their proposal in play for next year’s ballot.

A Massachusetts Teachers Association spokeswoman said MTA President Barbara Madeloni was handling media inquiries for opponents of the ballot question. Madeloni was not available for comment Tuesday.

After Baker unveiled his own bill to expand charter schools earlier in October, Madeloni said in a statement, “It is a disgrace that once a charter school is open, the local residents whose children are affected by that charter have no say over how the school is operated and no recourse to protect the interests of their own public schools from the charter’s actions and negative financial impact.”

— Written by Michael Norton

Copyright State House News Service