Gov. Baker urges Mass. residents to ‘be bold,’ lift charter school cap

The Senate voted on a compromise charter school bill introduced by a working group last week, which was written in response to Charlie Baker's ballot proposal.
Governor Charlie Baker received 25,000 charter school petition signatures at the State House Tuesday. –David L Ryan/The Boston Globe

During his State of the Commonwealth address Thursday night, Gov. Charlie Baker urged residents to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, an issue that he acknowledged some find contentious.

“I also urge you to be bold on K-12 education,’’ he said. “For some, expanding the availability of public charter schools is controversial. But giving parents in underperforming districts more opportunity to choose a better school is nothing less than any of us would demand for our own children.’’

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that usually operate independently of their local districts. They’re often seen as controversial because they do not have to be unionized and are given more freedom in determining their own curriculums, budgets, and staffing. About 80 charter schools currently operate in Massachusetts, more than 30 of which are in Boston.

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Baker filed legislation in October that would lift the current cap of 120 charter schools statewide. The bill would allow 12 new or expanded charter schools each year in districts that score in the bottom 25 percent on standardized tests. Boston is one of these districts.

During his speech, Baker noted that there are thousands of children on waitlists to get into charter schools in Massachusetts.

“More than 40,000 kids — most from communities of color — are excelling in public charter schools,’’ he said. “However, 37,000 more — mostly the neighbors of those kids — remain on a waiting list. Their parents struggle to understand why they don’t deserve the same education their neighbors’ kids get.’’

During an appearance on Boston Herald Radio, however, the state’s auditor Suzanne Bump said she couldn’t quantify the exact demand for charter schools in Massachusetts because the data was unreliable. In a December 2014 audit, Bump said she found children were on multiple lists or names were rolled forward from one year to the next without verification by state education officials.

But thousands of charter school advocates have mobilized to show their support for the schools. On Tuesday, members of Great Schools Massachusetts, a business-backed coalition that may spend up to $18 million to fight the cap, according to The Boston Globe, gave Baker a petition with more than 25,000 signatures that asks the legislature to remove the cap.

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As Baker acknowledged, there are many who oppose lifting the cap, including many parents and teachers unions. Baker said that students attending the Brooke Charter Schools in Roslindale, Mattapan, and East Boston had higher scores on the English and math PARRC exams than those in Carlisle, Belmont, Sudbury, Sharon, Concord, Wayland, Weston, and Newton. But a report from the Massachusetts Teachers Association found that, in Boston, charter schools enrolled fewer special needs and limited English proficiency students than Boston Public Schools, which opponents say could explain the difference.

The charter school issue is also contentious because of the state’s current reimbursement system, which was designed to ease the funding loss associated with student enrollment in charter schools. When a student enrolls in a charter school, state law requires that the public school district in which they reside pay the student’s tuition costs. The state is then supposed to reimburse that cost.

That doesn’t always happen. The lack of charter school reimbursements are a main cause of the $50 million Boston Public Schools budget gap for this coming school year, according to school officials. This year’s reimbursements covered less than half the cost of students who left the district, leaving a deficit of $18.6 million.

In his State of the City address Tuesday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh didn’t say much on the topic of charter schools.

“Instead of unity, too often we’ve seen schools pitted against one another, by adults,’’ Walsh said. “Tonight, I’m calling on everyone to come together to back all our children, all our teachers, and all our schools. That means fair and sustainable funding for both district and charter schools.’’

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Baker, however, talked only of parents who want to send their kids to charter schools.

“We are willing to discuss,’’ he said. “We are willing hear both sides. But a state that places such high value on education should not place arbitrary limits on high-quality schools. And it should not sit idly by while so many parents feel the pain of missed opportunity for their children.’’

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