Charter school backers rally to support lifting caps

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BOSTON Hundreds of boisterous charter school supporters rallied on Boston Common across from the State House on Wednesday to demand that lawmakers lift the state cap on the number of such institutions, as more than 37,000 students languish on waiting lists for admission.

“We are here from every corner of Massachusetts,” roared KIPP Academy Boston Principal Nikki Delk Barnes, who led the rally organized by Great Schools Massachusetts. “This is a revolution of parents, students, educators and community leaders, united in a common goal, to tell the state Senate to lift the cap on charter schools.”

The demonstration came as petitions circulated by Great Schools were being submitted backing a ballot question that if passed would accomplish their goal. Massachusetts law limits the number of  the publicly financed institutions to 120, including 72 Commonwealth schools that are state-chartered and governed by independent trustees, and 48 Horace Mann schools that require approval from local school committees. Charters are good for  five years and can only be renewed if the school meets certain performance standards. Barnes said the cap “effectively puts a ceiling on our education.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has proposed letting the cap rise annually by as many as 12 new Commonwealth schools or by expanding existing institutions, with the additions to be allowed in the 25 percent of districts that rank lowest in performance measures. Baker, who is on vacation through the end of the week, delivered comments through a pre-recorded video shown at the rally.

“I really wish I could be with you all today because what you’re doing really matters,” Baker said in the video. “I support your desire to lift the charter school cap and give all of those 37,000 kids the opportunity to get the kind of education we deserve.”

Baker added that there are “many forces to overcome” to raise the cap.

One of the biggest educators’ unions, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, for example, opposes Baker’s proposal. Critics say charters sop up resources that otherwise would go to district schools, leaving poor performers with fewer dollars that could be used to make improvements and threatening to undermine those that are successful. They also say special-needs students are underserved by charter schools.

“His plan would accelerate the dangerous direction in which we are already headed: toward being a state with a two-tiered education system, one truly public and the other private, but financed with public dollars,” Barbara Madeloni, the president of the 110,000-member association, said in a statement  released in October, when Baker announced his proposal. “The private system will continue to find ways to underserve those with the most needs and then use inflated claims of success to grab an ever-larger share of public education funding.”

On its website, the teachers’ union says $419 million in local aid funds from the state will be sent to charter schools this fiscal year. It says in district such as Boston and Holyoke, that means as much as 12 percent of school funding goes to charters.

But on Wednesday several parents of charter school students spoke out, including Dawn Foye of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, who said she’s “sick and tired” of a law that keeps thousands of students “out of great schools.”

Foye talked about how her son, Brandon, currently enrolled in a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade charter school, can’t continue his charter school education past the eighth grade because the district’s charter high schools are filled to capacity. She blamed politics for the shortage of seats.

“Give me a break,” she said. “Let them know in the State House that when it comes to our children, one size does not fit all. Give us the right to choose.”

Wednesday’s rally coincided with the deadline for submitting signatures on petitions backing a ballot question that if passed would lift the cap. The question, backed by Great Schools Massachusetts, would have much the same effect as Baker’s legislative proposal.

Last month, Great Schools said it had more than 100,000 signatures supporting the initiative for the 2016 election ballot. At least 64,750 certified signatures from registered voters statewide must be submitted by 5 p.m. Wednesday to put the question to voters next year.

Dawn Foye said her son, currently enrolled in a Roxbury K-8 charter school, will not be able to continue his charter school education due to the state cap and "politics." (Evan Lips, NewBostonPost)
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Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on follow Evan on Twitter at @evanmlips.