By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Two key Democratic lawmakers on Monday promoted a plan brokered over the weekend and designed to resolve the impasse over legislation that would trigger an expansion of charter schools in low-performing districts, but with a deadline approaching the deal's fate was far from certain.
With the Education Committee planning to meet Tuesday to address charter school legislation, the Senate co-chairwoman of the committee and the lead sponsor of legislation to lift the cap on charter school enrollment outlined a deal that would condition charter expansion on more state funding for public school districts.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Russell Holmes, both of Boston, presented a compromise that would gradually raise the cap on charter school enrollment provided that the state fully fund its charter school reimbursement program for traditional public school districts.
Holmes said the proposal was about making sure families in his district have a choice about where their children are educated without pitting charter schools against traditional public schools. "Let us all row together. Let us all be adamant about making sure charter school reimbursement happens," Holmes said.
Charter school advocates quickly rejected the deal, arguing they support full funding for charter school reimbursements but do not believe a cap increase should be tied to the annual budgeting process on Beacon Hill.
The reimbursement program, which sends state aid back to districts based on the number of students who enroll in charter schools, was underfunded in the fiscal 2014 state budget by $28 million, at a total of $75 million.
"I'm still hopeful, down to the last minute, that we'll be able to reach a compromise," Chang-Diaz said during a press conference in the State House.
The Education Committee is expected to meet Tuesday to consider bills that would not only raise the cap on charter enrollment, but extend intervention powers currently available to "turnaround schools" to a number of schools on the cusp of falling into underperformance.
The House chair of the Education Committee, Rep. Alice Peisch, could not be reached for comment, but told the Boston Globe over the weekend she does not support the compromise offered by her co-chair. Holmes said he has not been able to reach many of his colleagues on the House-controlled committee to gauge their level of support.
"It's not fait accompli yet," Holmes said.
The cap on charter school enrollment, under a 2010 education law, is scheduled to rise to 18 percent of total district enrollment by 2017. The plan put forward by Chang-Diaz and Holmes would allow the cap to rise one percentage point a year to 23 percent in 2022, adding roughly $1 million a year to the cost of fully funding the reimbursement program, according to Holmes. The cap lift would be frozen in years the Legislature does not fully fund reimbursements.
The Race to the Top Coalition, a group of business, education and civic leaders, urged the committee to reject the compromise proposal, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association delivered letters from more than 1,000 parents and community leaders to Chang-Diaz on Monday urging her to support a cap lift.
Calling the Chang-Diaz-Holmes proposal a "non-starter," Paul Grogan, president of Boston Foundation and a leader in the Race to the Top Coalition, said it was "completely inappropriate" to link the issue of funding with the cap and said it offered no guarantees that public school districts like Boston would receive more financial aid.
"They might not get any more state aid out of this. It would be up to the state legislature every year and it creates a very easy way for opponents of the charter schools to stall their growth by fighting reimbursement," Grogan said. "Planning and developing new schools is a multi-year process. Just think of the chaos that would have occurred if this provision was in effect that last couple of years when charter schools have been in expansion."
Grogan said it was "fiction" that charter schools were robbing traditional public schools of needed funding. He contended that other factors, including the loss of federal aid, were straining city school budgets, but he said the charter advocates would help lobby the Legislature to fully fund reimbursements for charter students.
Holmes and Chang-Diaz were joined at their press conference on Monday morning by supporters, including Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, Juan Leyton, director of Oiste, and Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and CEO of IBA, a South End community development organization.
Dorcena Forry said she supports a balanced system with charter schools helping traditional public schools identify best practices. "We need to make sure the funding is there to support regular public schools," she said.
Mariama White-Hammond, executive director of Project Hip Hop, said the battle for funding was "pitting our children against each other."
"I understand the theory behind charter schools and it sounds great. We all went to college and learned lots of really great theories, right? But the problem is that there's a point at which you put so much strain that in actuality you don't improve you just start a war. And what has happened now is that we are in war, charters against public, and at the end of the day the children are losing,' White-Hammond said.
She continued, "I'm not saying there's not value to competition, but there's a point at which you start making one system feel like it has to annihilate the other and vice versa, and that's what this compromise is trying to avoid."
Should efforts to raise the charter cap fall apart this year, Grogan said it was possible advocates would mount a campaign to put a question on the statewide ballot in 2016.
"We considered it this time and decided to work with officeholders instead. We felt there was a very good chance we could convince policymakers to take (the 2010 reform bill) forward another step, and we still feel like we have that shot," Grogan said.
Another group of parents, students and educators from around Boston are planning to rally at the State House on Tuesday afternoon against the idea of lifting the charter cap at all, calling for any such provisions to be removed from legislation under consideration until issues such as the mix of students enrolled in charter schools are addressed.
Karen Kast-McBride, a community organizer from Roslindale, said people with ties to more than 60 Boston schools from every neighborhood in the city plan to participate.