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Charter-school proponents petition to put expansion measure on 2016 ballot

Aug 5, 2015Boston Globe, Council in the News

By Jeremy C. Fox

Charter school proponents filed a petition Wednesday for a ballot measure that would authorize the creation or expansion of up to a dozen charter schools statewide each year.

The measure would direct state education officials to give priority to applications in the lowest-performing 25 percent of school districts and those with long waiting lists for charter seats. It would restrict the growth of seats to no more than 1 percent of student enrollment statewide.

The question would not technically raise a statewide cap on charter enrollment. The cap limits the Commonwealth to no more than 72 independent charter schools and 48 operated by traditional school districts.

Limits on individual districts, which are based on school spending, would also remain under the measure.

Instead, it would create exemptions that supporters say would address pent-up demand in urban districts that are at or near their caps, such as Boston, Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, and Somerville.

“This ballot question actually takes a fairly tempered approach to increasing access in a gradual process, year by year, with retention of the important oversight of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,” said Christopher Anderson, a former chairman of the state Board of Education and one of the petition’s signers.

Thomas Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, said the union would oppose charter expansion. He said charters take funding from district budgets and are disproportionately built in underfunded urban districts that serve greater numbers of English-language learners and students with special needs.

“An expansion of the charter school cap would draw even more money away from the regular public schools, where, of course, the overwhelming number of the students in Massachusetts go,” Gosnell said.

Mary Battenfeld, a member the Boston parents’ group Quality Education for Every Student, said the petition is misleading in saying that it does not seek to lift the charter cap, since it instead offers exceptions. She is also concerned that the voice of grassroots opponents will be drowned out by moneyed interests.

“A ballot initiative is not a process of community engagement,” she said. “Average parents will have very little to say, and that’s not right.”

Attorney General Maura Healey will review the measure to determine its constitutionality. If it passes muster, supporters must gather 64,750 voter signatures by Dec. 2 to proceed to the next stage.

In a separate filing, opponents of Common Core educational standards sought to put a question on the 2016 ballot that would require state standards be set by state education officials rather than national policymakers.

If voters approve the charter school measure, it appears unlikely that it would create an explosion of new schools.

Since charters were created by the Legislature in 1993, the board of education has approved a dozen or more charters in a single year only three times. That includes 15 in the first year and 16 in 2011, when it used expanded seats available under the 2010 Achievement Gap Act that doubled the number of charter seats in the state’s lowest-performing districts.

In most years, only a few new charters were granted.

Demand for new charter seats is high. In applications filed last week, 10 groups sought new charters, while three charter networks proposed building new schools and 19 schools requested expansion.

But the potential ballot question’s fate is unclear. An August 2014 Boston Globe poll found that 47 percent of respondents opposed raising the cap, while 43 percent supported an increase.

Governor Charlie Baker, a charter school proponent, said in a Globe interview last month that he would support a ballot question to expand charter access. On Wednesday, Baker again offered his support.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that charter school supporters are putting a question on charter schools and expanding the cap — especially in underperforming school districts — on the ballot,” Baker told reporters at the State House. “That’s something that’s important to me. We’ll probably file legislation on that sometime in the fall, as well.”

In 2010, Baker’s secretary of education, James Peyser, helped lead a proposed ballot question that would have eliminated the charter cap. The group dropped the effort when the Legislature passed the Achievement Gap Act.

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