Gov. Baker Pushes Charter School Bill on Beacon Hill

Gov. Charlie Baker indicated Tuesday he was willing to negotiate with Democratic lawmakers over charter school growth, while adding that it was "long past" the time to address the issue.

The Republican testified before the Legislature's Education Committee as it considered a number of bills, including his proposal to allow the state to add up to a dozen new or expanded charters each year outside of the existing cap on the schools.

The governor's bill would also let the schools give preference to high-need and low-income students, as well as students learning English and those with learning disabilities.

Baker told the panel that the about 80 charter schools currently operating in Massachusetts have delivered outstanding results for the more than 40,000 students enrolled in them, and some of the highest-performing charter schools are in the lowest performing school districts.

"But today, despite all this positive progress, the difference in overall student achievement in underperforming school districts and the rest of the Commonwealth remains too high, while some 37,000 children sit on waiting lists, trying to get into the Commonwealth's very successful charter school network," Baker said in prepared testimony.

Those who oppose more charter schools say they drain resources away from traditional public schools.

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Barbara Madeloni, has said Baker's bill would help create a two-tiered education system - one truly public and the other private, but financed with public dollars.

Critics like Madeloni said the proposal - which echoes the language of a proposed 2016 ballot question - could allow the state to add new charter schools each year until no traditional public schools remain.

The House approved a bill last year that would have gradually raised the cap on charter schools in Boston and several other school districts, but the legislation failed to win support in the Senate.

The governor said his administration was open to discussion with charter school critics, but also indicated he was running out of patience.

"But don't mistake an interest in dialogue for a willingness to let the clock tick," Baker said. "The time is already long past to address this issue.

In fact, the governor said, even if the Legislature voted immediately to expand charter schools, it would probably be too late for most of the students currently on waiting lists.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, in his testimony before the committee on Tuesday, endorsed a separate proposal that called for a phased-in increase in the charter cap until it reached 23 percent of the net school spending in the lowest 10 percent of underperforming school districts. His plan would also make charter schools eligible for funding through the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

"I have seen firsthand the value that public charter schools provide to our students and our communities," Walsh said in prepared testimony. "Charter schools have proven that they belong in our portfolio of schools, along with district, private, and parochial schools."

There is a pending lawsuit by lawyers representing five Boston students aimed at lifting the charter school cap.

Other bills heard by the committee on Tuesday would to create a moratorium on new charter schools, improve state reimbursements for charter schools, and ensure "charter school transparency and public accountability."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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