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Baker warm to charter ballot proposal, but plans to file his own bill

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By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — Gov. Charlie Baker voiced support on Wednesday for a ballot initiative to expand access to charter schools across Massachusetts, but indicated he also planned to file his own legislation, possibly creating two pathways for advocates to achieve a goal that died on Beacon Hill last year.

A group of charter school, business and education advocates on Wednesday filed a petition with the attorney general’s office to allow the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to authorize up to 12 new public charter schools or existing school expansions each year.

While the ballot question would leave the current state and district caps on charter school seats intact, the board could license charter schools in excess of the cap in certain districts if it determines the need for choice is great enough.

“I will say that 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,” said Baker, who made charter school expansion a platform of his campaign for governor last year. “That’s something that’s important to me. We’ll probably file legislation on that sometime in the fall as well.”

The governor’s support for charter expansion, combined with the threat of the ballot campaign, could add pressure on lawmakers to act this session. Education Committee Co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch, who helped shepherd a cap-lift bill through the House last year, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, and her counterpart Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is on maternity leave in August and unavailable, according to her staff.

While past efforts to grow charter schools have focused on lifting or eliminating the cap, the ballot petitioners opted to leave the existing caps in place.

Instead, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education could choose, depending on the strength of the application and the district for which it is proposed, to license a new or expanded charter in spite of the caps. Annual charter school seat growth would also be limited to 1 percent of statewide student enrollment each year, or about 9,558 new students.

“It gives the Board of Ed additional flexibility to authorize new public charter school seats in communities where the need is greatest and parent demand is strong,” ballot committee spokeswoman Eileen O’Connor said in an email.

Under current law, charter schools can only account for 9 percent of net school spending in a given district before they are capped. In the lowest performing districts as determined by students’ test scores, the cap climbs to 18 percent. Expansion has been frozen in some cities like Lawrence, Holyoke, and Fall River where the cap has been hit.

While advocates described their approach as “modest,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni said the effect of ballot petition is “equally as dangerous” as just eliminating the cap altogether.

“It’s just going to continue the efforts of some people to create a two-tiered education system in Massachusetts. We need to freeze charters and go back to putting the resources we need into public education,” Madeloni told the News Service.

The union leader said she has not been consulted by Baker’s administration for input on the governor’s legislation, but believes it could face equally long odds as last year when a bill died in the Senate.

“I think we saw last summer that they heard from their constituents that people don’t want this, and I trust that they’re going to continue to listen,” she said.

Charter advocates point to a waiting list of 37,000 students across the state for placement in a charter school as evidence of public demand for more school choice, but Madeloni cast doubt on those numbers and said “parents are going to be with us on this” as the union fights any ballot question.

Union officials point to an audit released in December 2014 by Auditor Suzanne Bump that found “deficiencies” in the state’s calculation of charter school waiting lists, including duplication.

Massachusetts High Technology Council President Chris Anderson, one of the original 10 signers of the petition filed with the attorney general, said the council hoped to play a “strategic role” in advancing the ballot question or legislation to ensure that students in all districts learn the math and science skills they’ll need for the new workplace.

“The enactment of additional and lasting reforms expanding student access to charter schools is an urgent moral and economic imperative,” Anderson said.

If the petition is certified by Attorney General Maura Healey, advocates will have until later November to collect 65,760 signatures to refer the petition to the Legislature for consideration.

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