Charter school expansion unlikely to come up, DeLeo says

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BOSTON – With Memorial Day weekend around the corner and just two full months of formal sessions left for the Massachusetts Legislature, Speaker Robert DeLeo, who controls the agenda in the state House of Representatives, on Wednesday questioned the propriety of expending time and effort trying to pass a bill expanding the number of charter schools.

The Winthrop Democrat said he wasn’t “holding out a lot of hope” for movement on charter schools given the likelihood, as he sees it, that ballot petitioners will take the issue to voters in November regardless of what the Legislature might be able to agree to.

The House has not passed charter school legislation this session, which began in January 2015. In the 2013-2014 session, the House approved a limited expansion of charters, which was rejected by the Senate.

The limited amount of time remaining on the calendar, which is further cut short by plans to accommodate for the national political conventions in late July, has also influenced DeLeo’s thinking about the prospects for certain bills that have gotten some attention this session, including a hands-free cell phone driving bill that he left out of the “upper tier” of priorities.

“Not having those weeks because of the conventions sort of concerns me and there are things we have to get done,” said DeLeo, who as speaker exerts near unfettered control over the schedule of House votes and has called on House members to meet once a week in formal sessions.

Asked about his “must-do” list, DeLeo ticked off just-released energy legislation, a transgender rights bill that will be before the House for a vote next week, the annual budget, Gov. Charlie Baker’s economic development bill, gender pay equity legislation and at least some of the governor’s proposed municipal governance reforms.

The Senate has already tackled some items on the speaker’s list, including the transgender rights bill and pay equity.

“I want to see if we can get possibly to a safe place on pay equity legislation,” DeLeo said unprompted.

Asked about the chances for the Senate-backed bill to require drivers to use hands-free devices while talking on the phone behind the wheel, DeLeo said, “Some folks have mentioned that. I’m not sure if that would be in the upper tier so to speak.”

The Senate this year pass a major education bill that provides for a modest increase in the cap on charter schools provided that it is coupled with a substantial new investment of more than $200 million a year in public education. The effort was panned by charter school proponents, and subsequently both the House and Senate co-chairs of Education Committee have expressed doubts about reaching consensus between the branches.

“I’m not sure where we can go,” DeLeo said, referencing comments made by senators that substantial changes to the bill could jeopardize the already fragile support for charter school expansion in the Senate.

DeLeo said he may have further conversations with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg about how to proceed, but he was not optimistic.

Referring to the ballot petitioners, DeLeo said, “I think they’re looking for a lot more than what was provided in the Senate bill and maybe even a little more than what was provided for in the House bill last year, so in any case I see that ballot question as remaining on for November, so the question is do we take it up for the sake of taking it up? I’m not so sure about that.”

The speaker was a little more upbeat about the prospects of the House taking up a bill that passed the Senate this spring proposing to raise the legal age for the purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Though he said he hasn’t reviewed the details of the legislation, the speaker has spoken with the American Cancer Society, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.

“I have to say I think they made a fairly compelling case,” DeLeo said.

Proponents of the measure have pointed to the 100 or more communities in Massachusetts that have already acted to raise the legal purchasing age for tobacco. DeLeo said he’s interested in hearing from lawmakers who represent cities and towns who have not taken similar steps.

“I’m not sure how that plays out to those communities that maybe have not raised it to 21. Do those reps have problems with the bill? I don’t know, but that’s what I’m anxious to hear,” he said.

Written by Matt Murphy