Massachusetts Senate kills charter school expansion

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

The 45,000 Massachusetts students on waiting lists to attend charter schools will continue waiting.

The state Senate has killed a bill that would have allowed more charter schools to open. It also would have expanded the reach of a program that’s effectively turned around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

SCHOOL’S OUT: Massachusetts senators killed a bill that would have allowed more students to attend charter schools. The state’s charter schools are some of the best in the country.

A similar bill could return after lawmakers reconvene in January, lobbyists and advocates say, but the result of this November’s gubernatorial election will probably affect advocacy.

The charter school expansion was the more controversial aspect of the bill.

Massachusetts, home to some of the highest performing charter schools in the country, caps the total number of charter schools that can open in the state and caps the amount of money each district can spend on charter schools. The bill would have exempted the state’s lowest performing districts, enabling them to open additional charter schools without cap restrictions.

Two versions of the bill failed in the Senate, — 26 13 and 30-9.

“The way it was treated in the Senate is a pretty resounding ‘Don’t send us this type of legislation,’” said Kate Apfelbaum, Peters fellow in education for the Pioneer Institute. “There was not much support for it, and even those that did support it had all kinds of strings attached that made it very difficult for charters to succeed.”

That doesn’t necessarily indicate the fate of future similar bills, said Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, in part because the charter movement in the state is healthy.

“There’s incredible demand for charters in Massachusetts and widespread support for lifting the cap,” he said. “Put those two together, and combined with a trend of performances that’s recognized as the best in the country, I’d say we’re headed in the right direction.”

All of the legislative seats and the governor’s office will be on the ballot this fall. Slowey said he didn’t expect to see a substantial difference in the makeup of the Senate, but a governor who favors charter expansion and makes it part of his or her agenda could bring some pro-charter momentum to the Legislature.

“This will surely not be the last time we visit this issue, and when we take it up again, we will look back on today as a moment where we failed to live up to our obligations to the children of Massachusetts and their families,” Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation and spokesman for the Race to the Top Coalition, which pushed for the bill, said in a statement.

A little less than a quarter of the wait list could have had access to a charter school, Apfelbaum said.

“We looked at roughly 10,000 students who would have eventually had access to the best shot they had at education, and the Legislature couldn’t get over their alliances,” she said. “I don’t know what the main goal up there was, but in the end, that’s what we lost, and the students really lost out big time.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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