Citing harm that charter schools cause, NAACP and Mass. Lawyers’ Committee will intervene in charter cap lawsuit

They say the schools disadvantage students of color, English language learners and those with disabilities.

Governor Charlie Baker takes a selfie with students at Brooke Charter School in October.
Governor Charlie Baker takes a selfie with students at Brooke Charter School in October. –Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

The New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the Massachusetts Lawyers’ Committee, as well as seven Boston Public School students, announced Thursday that they have moved to intervene with a pending lawsuit that looks to lift the state cap on the number of charter schools.

A motion to intervene is filed by a party other than the plaintiffs or defendants who has a vested interest in the subject matter of the case. In this scenario, the groups are getting involved because they say charter schools divert millions of dollars from traditional public schools each year, but serve far fewer students with disabilities and who are English language learners, as well as impose harsher discipline on students of color.

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“We’re not anti-charter school at the Lawyers’ Committee,’’ said Matthew Cregor, education project director of the lawyers’ committee for civil rights and economic justice. “But we have to wonder what would happen to students of color, english language learners, and students with disabilities who are not being served by schools if the cap was lifted. We need to hear from students who attend traditional public schools in this case.’’

The plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in Suffolk Superior Court September 15, 2015, are five anonymous students who did not secure charter school seats during the school lottery. Instead, they were assigned to traditional Boston public schools that the state classified as “underperforming.’’ They are suing the state to lift the cap.

The lawyers in the case, William Lee, Michael Keating and Paul Ware, said in a statement that they filed the suit to lift the cap to ensure greater access to public charter schools, which have a proven record of providing quality education to students across Massachusetts, including students of color.

“This lawsuit has never suggested that lifting the charter cap will solve every problem facing the public education system,’’ they said. “Efforts to address other systemic issues, however, should not come at the expense of thousands of students who are being denied access to charter schools because of the state’s arbitrary cap. We should be promoting charter schools, not trying to limit them.’’

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Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, said the organization wants to see students provided with the greatest education that our resources will allow.

“We firmly believe that setting up a separate system is destructive to the notion of providing the best education for all students,’’ he said.

Gov. Charlie 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, including Boston.

“The thing is, the plaintiffs’ goals are really not that different than the goals of the state’s Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, or other defendants,’’ Cregor said. “That’s why we think the court needs to hear from public school students who are affected by funds that are diverted away from public 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.

But 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.

Baker proposed a new plan to reimburse districts for funding lost to charter schools, which would double the amount districts receive in the second year from 25 percent to 50 percent of the lost tuition.

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“But that doesn’t cover the cost of lost tuition,’’ Cofield said. “Even if one hadn’t seen the numbers on discipline, the governor’s plan is evidence that this will continue to be a problem, and more charter schools would only make it worse.’’

Last fall, Attorney General Maura Healy moved to dismiss the lawsuit to lift the charter cap. That motion is currently pending. If it fails, Cregor expects the next hearing will happen in the spring.

 

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