Mass. senate to take up charter school reform

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STATE HOUSE — Facing the pressure of a ballot question and without a guarantee that he can wrestle enough support for charter school expansion, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said Wednesday that a new group of senators will try to write a charter school reform bill that could clear that branch later this year.

Charter school advocates and Gov. Charlie Baker, who has made expanding access to charter schools a top priority, have been waiting for the Senate to wrap up an internal debate over whether it made sense to try again to pass charter school legislation two years after a bill lifting the cap fell to defeat.

House leaders have been resistant to the idea of passing charter school expansion legislation as they did in 2014, without some assurance that the Senate would be willing to go along.

“We’re going to take a run at it. I think it’s fair to say it will be quite a process,” Rosenberg told reporters after discussing the issue with Senate Democrats one final time during a lengthy caucus. The Senate president has held multiple, bipartisan private meetings on the topic in recent months, and spoke with each Democrat individually to gauge their level of interest and concerns.

While much of the debate on Beacon Hill has focused on lifting the cap on charter school seats, Rosenberg said the cap will be just one component of a broader review of charter schools the Senate plans to undertake more than 20 years after education reform in Massachusetts introduced charter schools to the landscape.

“We are going to move ahead in an effort to assemble a bill that’ll be focused on reform of charter schools and so we’ll be talking about finance, admissions, retention, governance, the cap. Everything will be on the table, even some things maybe that don’t have directly to do with charter schools because the whole point is that every child in Massachusetts get a quality education,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said there are “quite a number of additional votes that have to be found” before any charter school bill could clear the Senate, and he said the Senate would not be having a debate over charters at all if not for the threat of a ballot question to lift the cap possibly appearing on the 2016 ballot.

“If the ballot question didn’t exist, this debate would not occur. There’s no question about it,” he said.

Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Patricia Jehlen, Dan Wolf and Karen Spilka will lead the Senate efforts to write a charter reform bill.

“Both systems, the district system and the charter system, are unhappy with the status quo. There are structural problems on both sides of this debate, and so I think that’s something that really commends the issue to us as a Legislature to get in there with a scalpel rather than the bludgeon of a ballot question and try to address the structure problems that we have heard about over and over and over again,” Chang-Diaz said.

Chang-Diaz and Jehlen sit as the current Senate chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the Education Committee. Wolf has two daughters who graduated from charter schools and he previously sat on the board of a charter school. The bill would ultimately pass through Spilka’s Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“After 20 years of having charters in this state, we want the best practices that are being done in the best of the charters to be done by all charters, so we’re starting with a discussion of reform, not how many more charters,” Rosenberg said, describing a set of standards the Senate could outline for all charters to follow.

Some senators in recent weeks have spoken openly about their skepticism that an expansion of charter schools could pass the Senate this session after only nine senators voted for a House bill in 2014, but as recently as Tuesday Gov. Baker said he remained “hopeful” that the Legislature could act to avoid an expensive and protracted ballot campaign.

Great Schools Massachusetts, the collation behind the ballot campaign to authorize additional charters to be licensed outside the existing cap, could proceed to the ballot if they are not satisfied with what the Legislature comes up with. Any Senate bill would also have to win support in the House, where Democrats are more open to the idea of lifting the cap.

“While it is encouraging to hear the Senate President will move ahead with legislation on charter schools, any bill that comes out of the legislature must address the needs of the 37,000 families stuck on waiting lists to attend a public charter school. We look forward to a robust conversation with members of the Senate and hope they will focus first and foremost on parents and children desperate for better schools,” said Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, in a statement.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni said this week the union would fight any efforts, either legislative or at the ballot box, to lift the charter school seat cap.

The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of parents, teachers and others, also continues to oppose efforts to reach a legislative compromise.

“We are deeply disappointed that Senate President Rosenberg has apparently bowed to pressure from the pro-charter lobby and is planning to release a bill that would lift the cap on charter schools,” said Russ Davis, director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice and a member of the MEJA coalition. “We don’t know what else will be in the legislation, but any lift of the cap would be a disservice to the vast majority of Massachusetts students – students attending district public schools.”

Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat who joined Rosenberg and her colleagues for the announcement along with Chang-Diaz, Wolf and Jehlen, said she is particularly concerned about how charter schools work with students with disabilities or English language barriers.

“When it comes to charter schools, parents feel that a lot of their kids are being pushed out, or really counseled out, not necessarily kicked out, and that is a problem,” Forry said. “I think this is where we have to really look at reform and see how we can bring the charter schools in line. It is a public school system and so they need to be doing everything they can to educate the whole child, not just the top of the crop.”

With budget season set to begin and a list of complicated goals in front of them, including energy reform, Rosenberg acknowledged that the working group will “have to move fairly aggressively” to produce a bill that could pass before the scheduled end of formal sessions in July and avert a ballot question.

The Amherst Democrat said the threat of the ballot question provides the motivation for the Senate to try to tackle the issue rather than be bound by the “up or down vote” on a policy that does not address many of the concerns charter school opponents have, including funding and student mix.

Though some communities are up against the cap on charter school seats in their district, Rosenberg said state education officials have the flexibility now to license as many as 18 more Commonwealth charters and additional charters in underperforming districts under current law.

“It’s not like there’s an emergency right now that we need to lift the cap,” he said.

Rosenberg said he intends to brief House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Baker on the Senate plans on Monday when the three leaders next sit down together, but offered no assurances that the effort to broker a compromise in the Senate will be successful.

“It’s going to be a fun exercise and it’s going to be very engaging and there’s no guarantee of the outcome, but people of good will can often find a path forward,” Rosenberg said.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service