Senators to meet, closing in on bill addressing charter schools

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STATE HOUSE — Two months after Senate leaders committed themselves to trying to break through the hard-line positions of charter school expansion proponents and opponents, the ad-hoc group of senators trying to write a bill that could pass that branch are closing in on a final proposal.

After extensive private meetings with senators in 2015, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg in late January tasked four senators with attempting to write a bill that could potentially satisfy ballot petitioners looking to lift the cap on charter school enrollment while also winning over lawmakers who are worried that charters are siphoning resources from traditional public schools.

The group, including Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Sen. Dan Wolf, Sen. Patricia Jehlen and Sen. Karen Spilka, are putting the finishing touches on a proposal that could emerge from committee as soon as Wednesday evening, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the process and planning.

Spilka, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, will convene a meeting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday in her office to walk members of the committee through the bill, according to three people familiar with the meeting. It’s unclear whether the committee will vote at that time to recommend the proposal – a spokeswoman for the committee could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Senate last week substituted two omnibus education bills (S 326 and S 327) for adverse Education Committee reports and referred those bills to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, creating potential vehicles for a charter school bill.

Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the Education Committee, told the News Service Wednesday morning that the bill was not yet completed.

“It’s not done yet. You will know when we have a bill,” she said.

Asked about the process this year after the Senate in 2014 voted down legislation that would have lifted the charter school cap, the Jamaica Plain Democrat said there had been “substantive” discussions over the past several months that many thought going in might be difficult.

“We’re not there yet, but we’ve come just a tremendous tremendous distance from a few months ago,” Chang-Diaz said.

The major question mark hanging over the Senate process is whether the legislation produced by Rosenberg’s working group will satisfy ballot petitioners, who could proceed to the ballot if they’re not satisfied with an alternative proposal from the Legislature.

Great Schools Massachusetts, the collation behind the ballot campaign to authorize up to 12 additional charters annually outside the existing cap, has suggested it could spend up to $18 million in support of its campaign. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has urged the Legislature not to compromise, vowing to defeat the ballot initiative at the polls in November.

While much of the debate has focused on the state’s cap on charter school enrollment, Rosenberg tasked his working group with looking at a wide range of issues associated with charter schools, including financing, admissions, retention and governance.

Rosenberg did not guarantee that a cap lift would be a part of the Senate’s proposal, but the Democrat’s preference for resolving conflicts such as these in the Legislature, rather than through the ballot process, has led to expectations of at least a small cap lift.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Monday said his members would also be interested in dealing with charter schools this session to head off a ballot fight, but said support in that branch would depend on the details.

“Obviously it would depend upon what exactly was in the Senate bill. I think, again the House during the last session did pass a charter bill. From what I’ve heard from some of the members, they’re ready and willing to do so again but let’s see exactly what the bill is that will be coming over from the Senate and by that time I’ll be able hopefully to better gauge the support or non-support from the House members,” DeLeo said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, an outspoken proponent of charter schools who has filed his own legislation similar to the ballot petition, has expressed his hopefulness for a Legislative compromise.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service