Mass. Lawmakers Seek Deal On Charter School Cap

Consensus on a bill that would allow for charter school expansion in Massachusetts remained elusive on Monday, with charter advocates saying a compromise offered up by several lawmakers would hold the schools "hostage" to state budget decisions.

The debate over whether to raise state-imposed caps on charter schools - public schools that operate autonomously from school districts - in Boston and other low-performing urban districts has been a contentious one at the Statehouse. Supporters laud the academic potential of charters, but critics, including teachers unions, argue they drain financial resources from conventional public schools.

The proposed compromise would allow the number of charter school placements to rise gradually over the next several years, but only if the state met its commitments to reimburse school districts for the financial impacts of students moving into charter schools.

"A third way is possible," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Education Committee. "It is possible for us to serve and care for the needs of children in the district system and in the charter system at the same time, and move forward on the same path."

The compromise is backed by state Rep. Russell Holmes, D-Boston, who filed the original bill to raise the charter cap. But Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, the House chairwoman of the education committee, is on record as opposing the compromise, leaving the bill's fate uncertain before a Tuesday deadline the panel set for taking action.

A 2010 law requires the state to reimburse school districts 100 percent of per-pupil costs in the first year after a student moves from a conventional public school to a charter school, and 25 percent in each of the following five years.

The state, however, has not fully reimbursed school districts for charter school placements in the last two years and the current state budget falls $28 million short of full funding, lawmakers said.

Under the proposal offered by Chang-Diaz and others, the cap would freeze if reimbursements fell short in future years.

Race to the Top Coalition, consisting of groups that support charter school increases, said the proposed compromise would allow lawmakers to block expansion simply by underfunding reimbursements - even by as little as $1.

"We support full funding for district schools, we just don't want our families to be held hostage to that line in the budget," said John Clark, co-director of the Brooke charter schools, which operate three schools in Boston and is seeking to expand.

Rafik Chaib, an East Boston resident, said his son, a second-grader, has spent two years on a waiting list for charter school placement.

"I don't know how long we are going to wait," Chaib said. Boston recently held a lottery for the 13,600 children seeking 2,200 available spots in charter schools.

The legislative impasse threatens to hold up aspects of the bill aimed at narrowing the student achievement gap in Massachusetts, including a provision that would give state officials more flexibility to intervene in schools that are in danger of falling into "underperforming" status.

"We should not be pitting our children against each other," said Mariama White-Hammond, a community organizer who backs Chang-Diaz's proposal. "This compromise says let's put charter advocates and public school advocates in the same boat so that we can learn to row together."

This article was originally published on March 24, 2014.