Charter school legislative course may circle until January

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BOSTON – A decision from the state Senate on whether to pursue charter school expansion or leave the issue for Massachusetts voters to settle next year may not come until early January, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) said Wednesday after a private bipartisan meeting to weigh the pros and cons.

The Senate holds the trump card that will determine which path charter school advocates will have to walk to pursue expansion. While ballot petitioners can look to election day next year if the Senate declines to pursue a bill, proponents on Beacon Hill, including Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, have expressed their preference for legislative action.

“It was not a decision-making day. It was put a lot of information on the table, bat it around, hear other people’s ideas, hear iterations of ideas and then we’re going to continue the conversation in the weeks to come,” Rosenberg told reporters after the nearly three-hour caucus with senate members from both parties.

Rosenberg, who voted against lifting the charter school cap last year, had convened a series of bipartisan meetings to talk through the charter school issue, inviting both proponents and opponents to address the Senate in private before convening Wednesday’s senators-only session.

The discussion in that meeting focused on concerns about financing, admissions and rules that may be different for traditional public schools than charters. After the caucus, nearly a dozen senators deferred to Rosenberg or made generic comments when asked about the expansion issue, with many barely pausing to respond.

“It’s too early to try to predict whether this is going to lead to the outcome of a bill or just saying, ‘Let the ballot question rip,'” Rosenberg said.

While he originally set a target date of Thanksgiving to make that decision, Rosenberg  now says it will likely take longer, until probably early January, around the time lawmakers return from winter recess. He said another Senate caucus on charter schools was likely and would occur when senators are closer to making a decision.

Baker, who has proposed legislation to permit a dozen new charter schools to open each year, said he believes there are three factions within the Senate, including those who support expansion, those who oppose it and those willing to listen.

“They wouldn’t be having this conversation if people weren’t committed to engaging with one another around this to figure out what they might be willing to do, and as somebody who deeply believes that we need to give kids, especially kids in low-income communities and under-performing school districts, more options, I think that’s a positive development,” Baker said on Tuesday. He has cited a student waiting list for charter slots with about 37,000 names on it as an indication that more schools are needed.

The governor said parents of children who have both been accepted by lottery into a charter and those who haven’t been chosen have a strong voice in the debate that should be heard.

“Do we believe parents should have the opportunity no matter where you live to send your kid to a good school? Yes or no? And if we think the answer to that question is yes, then I can’t imagine a scenario in which we don’t end up raising the cap,” Baker said.

Both proponents and opponents of charter school expansion in the Senate were unusually cagey after the meeting, offering only boilerplate assessments of the discussion and their sense about where the Senate might be headed.

At the beginning of the current two-year session, Speaker Robert DeLeo, the leader of the House of Representatives, told Rosenberg that the Senate should take the lead on charter expansion after a House-backed bill was roundly defeated in the upper chamber in 2014.

Rather than risk a repeat performance, Rosenberg said he wanted to feel comfortable that there was sufficient interest among senators before embarking on a “fool’s errand” of trying to write another bill.

A public hearing on charter school bills was not held until this month and the bills remain before the Education Committee.

Baker’s proposal would target additional charter schools for under-performing school districts, closely mirroring language in the proposed 2016 ballot question. Backers of that initiative said this week that they had gathered over 100,000 signatures to put it before voters, well above the threshold needed to gain a place on the ballot.

Rosenberg said he remains concerned about the rapid growth of charter schools and how many the state could ultimately wind up with under Baker’s proposal and the ballot measure, when questioned about his vote last year against expansion, before he became Senate president. The president typically doesn’t vote unless it’s to break a tie.

“There are a series of issues and problems that have arisen over time and it’s fair game to review and revise and we have to determine whether what’s on the ballot or any of the bills in play are revised to the point people feel comfortable with moving to the next chapter of this,” Rosenberg said.

Written by Matt Murphy