Senate bill ties charter expansion to education investments

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STATE HOUSE — An increase in the cap on charter school enrollment in Massachusetts would be tied to major new investments in all public schools starting in 2018 under a proposal released Thursday by Senate leaders that immediately worked to inflame the debate over charter schools.

The bill would link a 5 percent increase in the cap over the next 10 years to a commitment from the Legislature starting in fiscal 2019 to fully fund a new foundation budget formula for all public schools that would cost an estimated $203 million to $212 million annually for seven years.

Failure to fully fund the higher foundation budget by the Legislature would result in a proportional slowing of the cap increase, which senators hope could help diffuse local tensions between district and charter schools by giving them a common goal.

The ability of Senate leaders to move a bill through that branch will be critical to any attempts to avert a costly and divisive campaign this summer and fall over a ballot question that calls for more charter schools without addressing other aspects of education reform.

The legislation produced by a four-senator working group met swift and strong opposition from charter school advocates.

“We set out to create a vision here and to show how public education should move forward in the Commonwealth. If the result of this is the ballot question comes off, that would be terrific,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, as part of the Save Our Schools coalition opposing the ballot question, has said it would prefer to fight the question this fall rather than compromise.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz led the effort over the past two months with Sens. Dan Wolf, Karen Spilka and Patricia Jehlen to craft a bill that could pass that branch by satisfying both proponents and opponents of charter schools. Senators are calling their bill the RISE Act, or An Act Enhancing Reform, Innovation and Success in Education.

“We are putting forth legislation today that, very importantly at a bottom line, puts forth tens of thousands of new seats in innovative classrooms targeted at districts that are struggling the most,” said, Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and co-chair of the Education Committee.

The Senate aims to debate and vote on the legislation next Thursday, but its fate within that branch, as well as with the House and governor, remains uncertain. Senate leaders said Thursday they were unsure what the vote might look like if it were held immediately.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a strong proponent of charter school expansion who has filed his own legislation, said families need more school options now, and was critical of the Senate’s plan that could put additional financial burdens on the state, and cities and towns.

“While I thank the Senate for their work, the proposal offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools and the new mandates for local spending in this proposal could place a further burden on taxpayers,” Baker said in a statement.

Higher foundation budgets proposed under the bill would not only increase the state’s Chapter 70 local aid commitment but would also require cities and towns to increase their contributions to public school systems. Senators said they could not quantify that cost, which would vary by community.

The bill also provoked a negative reaction from the coalition pushing the ballot question that would allow up to 12 new charter schools a year outside the cap without any of the new regulations or spending caveats contemplated in the bill.

“Today the Senate turned a blind eye to families desperate for better public schools. This bill cripples the best public charter schools in the country, and abandons 34,000 students, almost all of whom are low-income children of color,” said Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts.

The Senate bill would lift the cap on charter school spending gradually over 10 years from 18 percent of net school spending to 23 percent in half-percent increments. The cap for charter schools that serve dropouts returning to school, homeless students or those who are pregnant or parenting would also be eliminated.

By tying the cap lift to increased funding for public school districts, Senate leaders said they would provide incentive for charter advocates and critics to work together to bring pressure on lawmakers to meet the funding obligation.

Rosenberg recalled skepticism after the passage of a major education reform law in 1993 in the Legislature’s ability to follow through, but noted that the Legislature met its funding targets every year, even when it required budget talks between the branches to extend months past the budget’s due date.

Spilka, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, called the major funding increase proposed in the bill “doable,” but when asked whether the Senate would step up this year in its budget to provide a significant public education spending increase she waffled.

“We’re in the process of working on a Senate budget. I think as most people know it’s a tight year so we’re working and we will be doing the best we can,” Spilka said, suggesting lawmakers would have more incentive to spend more if it was written into law. Spilka also said the cost through fiscal 2025 would be comparable to what the state could pay to implement the ballot question if 12 new charters open each year.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said tying a “negligible increase” in the enrollment cap to fully funding increased foundation budgets would create “an easy mechanism to place a moratorium on new charters.” He also expressed concerns that a provision allowing communities to count Horace Mann charters and Innovation Schools toward its net school spending total could be used to “freeze” charter growth.

Those two types of schools operate under greater oversight from the local district than a third type of school – Commonwealth charters – that are independent.

“This is not a reform bill. It is designed to freeze the growth of public charter schools across the state, and it imposes onerous new regulations that will shackle the operation of existing charter schools,” Kenen said.

The bill would also require charter schools to publicly disclose their finances, contracts and board meeting minutes. It requires charter applicants to engage with the local district from which it is seeking to enroll students and establishes an exchange program for teachers in district and charter schools to share best practices.

Charter school teachers, according to senators, would be required to attain certification similar to district school teachers, and charter school teachers would be guaranteed the right to unionize. New charters would also be required to adopt a unified enrollment lottery system with local districts where parents could opt out if they didn’t want to send their children to a charter.

“The idea here is to arm and empower districts to use the best practices that have shown success elsewhere,” Chang-Diaz said, noting that only 4 percent of students in Massachusetts are currently enrolled in a charter schools.

Emphasizing her desire to produce a bill that improved education for every student, she said even if the waiting list for charter seats was eliminated only 8 percent of students would attend a charter.

“This bill creates incentives for innovation and makes sure everyone has a stake in the success of all of our schools,” Spilka said.

Wolf, who has sat on the board of a charter school and sent his two daughters to charter schools on Cape Cod, said it would be “reckless and irresponsible” for the Senate to allow the question of whether to authorize additional charter schools be decided by voters without trying to take legislative action first. He emphasized the bill’s focus on a “higher level of transparency” for charter school governance.

The bill would also make changes to charter school enrollment policies, requiring those schools to backfill seats vacated by students mid-year and maintain rates of attrition and suspension for students in English-language-learning and low-income categories comparable to the sending district.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service