Chairs agree accord on charter schools ‘unlikely’

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STATE HOUSE — It’s unlikely that the Massachusetts House and Senate will be able to agree on a charter school expansion bill that would prompt charter school proponents to drop a proposed ballot question, key lawmakers told school committee members on Tuesday.

The ballot question calls for the addition of 12 charter schools per year in Massachusetts. Supporters say it will open up educational opportunities for students on waiting lists while critics say charter expansion will diminish capabilities of traditional public schools.

“I think it is unlikely – not beyond the realm of possibility – but I think it is unlikely that the Senate and the House will be able to agree to a bill that results in the proponents of the question abandoning the question,” Education Committee Co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley said during remarks at the State House. “I have been hopeful that we would be able to come up with some compromise that would remove the question from the ballot. We have until the beginning of July to do that. I am not giving up on that. But my optimism is somewhat less than it was a few months ago.”

Asked at the Massachusetts Association of School Committee event about Peisch’s outlook, Senate Education Committee Co-chair Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain said, “I’ll be honest with you, I would agree. There’s nothing easy about charter policy, even within the 40 members of the Senate.”

Chang-Diaz said there was a “narrow” path on the issue. “That doesn’t mean we should stop and it doesn’t mean that there’s no path,” she said. “I am chastened by the experience. It is certainly not an easy undertaking.”

The House last session approved a bill calling for limited expansion of charter schools, but the bill failed in the Senate.

With the branches this session apparently still at odds over charter school expansion and public education financing, it’s unclear whether the House will even take up a charter bill this session and try to reconcile it with the Senate’s version.

The Senate on April 7 voted 22-13 to approve its RISE Act bill tying a gradual increase in the cap on charter school enrollment with new investments of more than $200 million a year in public education. Senators said their bill incorporated recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission and aimed to improve conditions for all public school students, not just those attending charters.

The Senate bill included a Sen. Michael Moore amendment that would give local school committees the right to vote on whether a charter school in their district should receive public funding from the district for students that opt to enroll in the charter. If a school committee voted against, Moore said, the charter school could still operate, but the state would be required to provide the funding.

Chang-Diaz said an accord on education legislation is still possible.

“Let’s consider the alternative,” she said. “If we do nothing, then all of us are going to be facing that ballot initiative question come November. And it is my personal opinion that whether that question prevails or whether it fails on the ballot it will be a huge disservice to the students of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts because no one is satisfied with the status quo, right? So even if it fails we will have lost an opportunity to do something really great and really important for schools and for students.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, a charter school expansion proponent, has voiced concern with the Senate approach. Education Secretary Jim Peyser, a Baker appointee, said in statement after the Senate vote that he hoped the House would produce a “more focused bill that ensures children and families in our lowest performing districts have greater access high-quality public charter options.”

“This bill would effectively place a moratorium on new public charter schools and puts insurmountable obstacles between thousands of children and high quality public education. It offers no relief to the 34,000 children stuck on wait lists while placing a financial burden on cities and towns,” Peyser said.

Peisch told school committee members Tuesday that the annual spending bill moving through the House this week includes a higher appropriation for Chapter 70 education aid than Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget and noted that lawmakers are contemplating the impacts of declining enrollments in many Massachusetts communities and the impact on education budgets of “little to negative” inflation.

— Written by Michael P. Norton

Copyright State House News Service