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City, charter schools near an agreement

Money, types of students key in accord

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino and school officials are on the verge of striking a historic truce with the city’s independently run charter schools, as they attempt to create a mutually beneficial relationship after more than a decade of acrimony.

The compact, which would be the first in Massachusetts and one of a handful nationally, is expected to be announced this afternoon following a meeting convened by Menino. The Globe obtained a copy yesterday.

The three-page document attempts to resolve some of the thorniest issues, from money to the kinds of students charter schools serve, issues that have long strained relations between City Hall and the 14 charter schools, publicly financed institutions overseen by the state.

Of particular significance, charter schools would agree to target student recruitment in nearby neighborhoods so fewer students require busing, a service that state law requires the city to cover, at a cost to Boston of about $3.5 million a year.

In return, Boston would consider leasing empty district school buildings to those charter schools that abide by the compact, a scenario that is likely to rile city parents, teachers, and students who once occupied those schools and never wanted them to close.

The accord also includes a pledge from charter schools to serve more special-education students and English-language learners, while the School Department will explore the possibility of allowing charter schools to join them in a cost-saving plan to purchase supplies or use services, such as breakfast and lunch programs, that the city school district operates.

Menino is expected to deliver a short speech at this afternoon’s meeting and will stress the importance of collaboration between the two sectors of public education, according to a copy of the mayor’s prepared remarks.

“As we pushed ed reform at the State House, as we’ve worked to turn around schools, and as we’ve labored to redesign the district, we’ve showed that what’s more important than anything — more than adult wishes, more than buildings, more than ego — is that the kids are going to learn,’’ the mayor was expected to say. “This compact shows the same thing.’’

The agreement will require approval of the School Committee, as well as boards of trustees for the 14 charter schools.

Nearly all charter schools are expected to support the agreement, said Kevin Andrews, chairman of the Boston Alliance of Charter Schools, based on a straw poll he took earlier this week.

“This is a historic agreement,’’ said Andrews, who also is headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter Public School in Dorchester. “I believe it paves a new era of cooperation and collaboration between charter schools and district schools for the benefit of students.’’

Other provisions call for joint teacher recruitment and training, joint analysis of student demographic and performance data, the location of charter schools in neighborhoods with greatest need, and a commitment from the city to protect the autonomy of charter schools.

The compact is the latest signal of warming relations between Menino and the charter schools, which began operating in the city about 15 years ago.

Like many city officials across the state, the mayor had long been concerned about the way charter schools are funded and by the lack of enrollment of students with severe special needs or limited English-speaking ability at most of those schools.

But in June 2009, the mayor shocked the political and educational establishments by voicing strong support for charter schools.

He said at the time that if state lawmakers rejected legislation to allow the city to open its own charter schools without teacher union approval, he would support more independently run charter schools in the city.

He ultimately supported a bill that became law last year, permitting both scenarios, and also called on charter schools to enroll students who are reflective of the communities they serve.

Under state rules, charter schools enroll students through a lottery, and every student who leaves a school district takes thousands of dollars in state aid to the charter school. Boston loses about $55 million annually in state aid to charter schools to cover the tuition of more than 5,300 students.

It is an amount charter school supporters say Boston and other districts in similar situations no longer need because they have fewer students to educate.

Animosity over the funding issue has been so intense it has short-circuited hopes of creating a competitive marketplace for public education: The idea that the two sectors would pursue innovative teaching approaches to attract students and allow each side to learn from the other.

Boston began discussions of a compact in December and immediately drew fire.

The city issued a press release that said the leasing of buildings was among the issues on the agenda.

The meeting took place the day before Superintendent Carol R. Johnson presented a plan to the School Committee to merge or close about 18 schools.

The teachers union accused Johnson of closing schools to make room for more charter schools, several of which are opening additional campuses in the next few years.

Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, said last night he did not know the details of the compact, but expressed concern the city would work so closely with charter schools.

“I wouldn’t object so much if charter schools accepted all students, but they don’t,’’ Stutman said. “They offer a quasi-private school education using public dollars, regrettably.’’

He also scolded the city for exploring the idea of leasing city buildings to charter schools, saying, “It insults the Boston public school population, many of whom have just lost their schools.’’

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said the compact underway in Boston was long overdue and a “big ray of sunshine’’ in the charter school movement.

“I think it sets a wonderful example for districts across the Commonwealth, and I hope they will emulate this,’’ Reville said.

But, he added, “in many places the resentment is thick.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.