Rosenberg questions endgame for ‘experimental’ charter schools

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STATE HOUSE — Without indicating how the Senate is leaning, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg over the weekend referred to the charter school movement as an “experimental approach to education” that should not necessarily be allowed to continue to expand.

After defeating a proposed lift to the charter school cap last session, senators have been engaged in weeks of meetings and talks over whether to again consider an expansion of charter schools, or leave their future in the hands of voters by means of a proposed ballot question in 2016.

Rosenberg, during an interview with WBZ’s Jon Keller that aired on Sunday, said many senators have concerns about the financing of charter schools, admission policies and student retention rates.

“Over the 20 years, these concerns have been raised but they’ve been swept aside,” Rosenberg said.

The Amherst Democrat went further when he suggested charter schools were not initially intended to be a widespread alternative to traditional public schools and, at some point, may be “played out.”

“The issue is if you take the ballot question and you take it to the logical extension and conclusion there is no cap any longer if the ballot questions passes and so that’s the issue. When we passed it initially they said 25 charters. We’re now up to 80 charters. How many more charters do we need in Massachusetts for this experimental approach to education to be fully played out?” Rosenberg said.

The proponents behind a ballot initiative to expand charters crafted their proposal to leave the cap on charters intact, while allowing the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to circumvent the cap at its discretion to license up to 12 new charter schools a year. Ballot question backers say the demand for more charter schools is backed up by thousands of people on waiting lists.

When challenged by Keller over his insinuation that concerns about financing and admissions policies have not been debated since charter schools were first authorized in Massachusetts in 1993, Rosenberg allowed that some “adjustments” have been made, but not to the full “satisfaction of the members.”

“There’s a perception, and we’re drilling down deep on this right now, that other states have figured out a fairer way of funding charters so that having charters would not have a direct impact on the funding of traditional public schools,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg has said in the past he expects to make a decision in January on whether to try to write legislation that could pass the Senate next year, or simply leave it to the ballot process.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni has expressed confidence about defeating the proposed ballot question. On Monday night, Madeloni and MTA officials are holding a 7 p.m. telephone town hall to hear from union members ahead of political forums that the union plans to begin on Dec. 4.

Great Schools Massachusetts, the campaign behind the ballot question, held a Nov. 18 rally on Boston Common where Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito participated and organizers estimated a crowd of approximately 1,000 people, based on bus head counts and check-in tallies.

At the rally, Polito told those gathered that “it’s not fair” that roughly 37,000 students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools. “Thirty-seven thousand of our children in this Commonwealth are put on hold. That’s not acceptable. It’s not fair. It’s not morally right,” she said. “We need to make sure that every single child has access to the best education, not the second best.”