Charter cap, Common Core weighed by lawmakers

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BOSTON – A pair of hotly contested ballot proposals came in for some emotional testimony Monday during a public hearing hosted by the Joint Committee on Education, as supporters and opponents voiced their opinions on the initiatives to drop national Common Core standards from public schools and lift the state cap on charter schools.

Heavy hitters in government, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner kicked off the hearing. Chester focused on defending Common Core while Walsh urged lawmakers to squash the charter school proposal and replace it with their own legislation.

“To put it simply, this proposal does not provide for the substantial charter school growth that the proponents seeks,” Walsh said about the ballot measure. “It would instead wreak havoc on our municipal finances.”

Backers of lifting the charter cap, including Gov. Charlie Baker, have pushed the measure as a way to relieve a backlog of students waiting for seats in the privately run institutions. The latest state assessment put the number of children on waitlists at about 34,000 statewide.

Walsh told the committee he would prefer it if lawmakers would “take on a more comprehensive legislative reform package” and said the ballot measure, if it passes in November, will “undermine our ability to improve new and existing schools in Boston.”

“I don’t exaggerate when I say the fate of public education in Boston depends on it,” Walsh said about the need for legislation. “Let me be clear – I remain an ally of charter schools and I support raising the cap, but this ballot petition would not help charter schools’ sustainability.”

An average of three charter schools a year have been added statewide over the last decade, Walsh said,  while the ballot proposal calls for allowing a maximum of 12 additions annually.

“We can also be fairly certain based on history that a disproportionate share of these seats would be added in the city of Boston,” Walsh said.

Meanwhile, Chester predicted dire consequences if voters dump Common Core in favor of retaining the state’s pre-2010 standards, known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. Critics have derided a November vote by the state board of education, to drop using a related testing regime, as a politically motivated bit of repositioning rather than an abandonment of Common Core, and the commissioner’s comments on Monday appear to bear out that reading.

Chester told lawmakers that the ballot proposal “would disrupt district efforts to upgrade instructional programs” and require “substantial additional spending by the state and by local school districts.” He spoke at length about the changes that have been made since 2010, when Common Core was adopted. Chester said that decision was made with feedback from “important stakeholders,” including potential future employers of Bay State students, university officials and school teachers.

In the meantime, Chester said the education department has set up a new website where parents and others can submit comments which will be used in developing a new educational standards framework. But that will be substantively based on Common Core. Critics of this approach favor a return to standards developed in Massachusetts for Bay State school children.

Donna Colorio, a member of the Worcester School Committee who helped spearhead the campaign to put the Common Core question on the ballot, countered that the national standards represent “an educational death spiral” and rattled off a list of statistics she said show student exam scores dropping since 2010.

“This is insane,” she said, disputing Chester’s claim that a majority of teachers support the new standards, pointing a series of polls she said show that support is eroding. “It is clear that this educational experiment needs to end.”

Dave McGeney, a Peabody School Committee member for 20 years, also testified against Common Core, calling it an “unholy alliance between the educational industrial complex and our federal government.”

McGeney also slammed the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a group that is backing a lawsuit that seeks to keep the Common Core question off the November ballot. He described the alliance as “paid Common Core proponents.”

“The argument to stay the course on Common Core because we’ve wasted millions on it already is ridiculous,” McGeney added. “Using that logic, we should add two more lanes to the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.”

Monday’s hearing also saw spirited testimony from Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson (D-Roxbury), who described the charter school cap-lifting ballot initiative as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Jackson pointed to a recent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education study that projects $139 million in state funding next year for Boston’s charter schools and just $73 million for district schools.

“When we say choices, that doesn’t only mean opting out of public schools,” Jackson said.

Midway through the hearing, as Boston students were busy marching on Beacon Hill to protest planned district budget cuts, Barbara Madeloni, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, praised the students’ activism.

Unlike the massive mobility efforts that saw charter school supporters show up in droves at various rallies during the past six months, backers of the ballot measure were sparse at Monday’s day-long hearing.

Just one group of participants testified in favor of the proposal, featuring a parent who told lawmakers that one of her daughter’s district teachers once said her daughter would “never be able to learn.”

“Now she is thriving at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy,” the mother, Margela Olivier-Galette, said.