Teachers’ unions ask lawmakers to leave charter caps to voters

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/03/teachers-unions-ask-lawmakers-to-leave-charter-caps-to-voters/

BOSTON – Some of the state’s largest teachers’ unions, allied with community groups that back their opposition to increasing the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, have asked lawmakers to set aside pending compromise measures and let the fight be decided at the ballot box next year.

Should they retain current limits on charter schools, lawmakers will likely toss the question to voters, as an advocacy group that favors an expansion of the publicly funded, privately run schools is pursuing plans for a ballot initiative to raise the caps. In an Oct. 27 letter to legislators signed by 22 groups, including the American Federation of Teachers’ Massachusetts branch and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance acknowledges that risk.

“We understand this means we will almost certainly have to fight a ballot initiative in 2016,” the organization said in the letter. “We are prepared to take on that fight because, while we know we will be outspent by the well-funded corporate- and foundation-backed pro-charter forces, we believe we will win.”

Lawmakers are considering proposals that include one from Gov. Charlie Baker that would lift the cap by as many as 12 commonwealth charter schools each year in low-performing districts. Currently, the state has capped the number of charter schools at 120. Baker, who campaigned for governor partly on a call to expand charter education, cited waiting lists with some 37,000 names on them of students looking to get into a charter school.

The appeal to lawmakers to let the issue be decided by voters came not just from unions but from community groups such as the New England conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. Those groups represent students, parents and low-income communities, according to Russ Davis, a spokesman for the alliance and executive director for Massachusetts Jobs with Justice in Boston.

“We don’t want politicians thinking they’re doing us favors by passing something that is going to hurt public education – but not hurt us as much as the ballot question,” Davis said in an interview. While those who favor lifting the charter cap may have more money, he said, “we have the people, and we think we have the arguments, on our side.”

One group backing higher caps, Great Schools Massachusetts, announced that it had collected more than 100,000 signatures to support putting a charter question on the November 2016 election ballot.

“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 stuck on public charter school waiting lists,” Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman, said in the announcement, which the group issued on Oct. 27. To qualify for the ballot, the group may need almost 69,000 certified signatures roughly evenly distributed across the state’s counties, according to Ballotpedia.org, a Madison, Wisconsin, group that tracks voter initiatives and politics nationwide.

Lawmakers heard from Baker and others on both sides of the issue at an Oct. 13 hearing before the Joint Committee on Education. State Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), the committee’s House chair, said that although it’s “highly unlikely” that Baker’s bill would move forward by the end of 2015, she remains “cautiously optimistic” that the legislation will make progress early next year.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis