New Charter School Bill May Not Pass Massachusetts Senate

The Senate's charter school legislation appears to be dead on arrival on Beacon Hill.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg flanked by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz

Photo by Garrett Quinn

Senate President Stan Rosenberg flanked by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. Photo by Garrett Quinn

After having a day to review the Senate’s charter reform bill the verdict is in: Nobody likes it except for the people who wrote it.

The bill, which was the Senate’s attempt to prevent a major and expensive political ballot fight over charter schools in November, appears to be dead on arrival on Beacon Hill. It’s a hodgepodge of proposals aimed at appeasing charter school opponents and supporters, with attempts to link raising the cap on charter schools to educational funding. Opponents of charters are opposed to creating any additional charter schools in the state, while supporters are unhappy with a slew of micromanaging provisions that are akin to a poison pill.

The bill would allow for a gradual increase in the number of charter schools around the state with a strong focus on underperforming districts, but it would curtail their independence. The bill also calls for $1.4 billion in new spending on all schools, district and charter, over the next seven years. In trying to satisfy everyone the bill managed to please no one.

Opponents of the proposed charter school bill ballot question, Save Our Schools, a coalition of state teachers unions and community activists, had this to say:

The bill would perpetuate the very serious problem inherent in lifting the cap yet again: the expansion of a separate and unequal system. Commonwealth charter schools are causing grave harm to the real public schools in Massachusetts, taking hundreds of millions of dollars from our students and communities and putting these vital funds under the control of private entities. Given this reality the state should not move to expand their reach. We continue to oppose any bill that would lift the cap on charter schools and believe the voters should have an opportunity to vote on this issue in November.

And from proponents of the charter school ballot question, Great Schools Massachusetts:

Today the Senate turned a blind eye to families desperate for better public schools. This bill cripples the best public charter schools in the country, and abandons 34,000 students, almost all of whom are low-income children of color.

Then everybody in between on this issue expressed disappointment, including longtime advocates for charter schools and education reform, the Pioneer Institute, a libertarian think tank:

The Massachusetts Senate’s charter public school bill is disappointing for education reform and the hopes and aspirations of urban school children in the Commonwealth. Unlike the Senate bill that largely became the landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, which had no charter school caps, this current Senate bill is intended to stifle the equality of educational opportunity offered by Massachusetts charter public schools, not expand it.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a supporter of charter schools and this fall’s ballot question, was equally disappointed in the Senate’s legislation:

While I thank the Senate for their work, the proposal offers no relief to 34,000 students currently on a waiting list to access high-performing public charter schools and the new mandates for local spending in this proposal could place a further burden on taxpayers. I look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to provide high quality educational options for these tens of thousands of kids and families, most who live in low-income urban neighborhoods, but have been clear that these families need relief now, regardless of how it is achieved.

Mayor Marty Walsh through communications officer Laura Oggeri poured some some cold water on the proposal:

Further analysis will be required to determine the fiscal and educational impacts the Senate proposal will have in Boston. While the Mayor is encouraged that the Legislature is taking action on charter schools, we hope that the final bill will provide a clear path to a responsible cap increase paired with charter financing reforms and provisions providing districts with the necessary tools to deliver adequate education to all of its students.

 House Speaker Robert DeLeo touted his chamber’s 2014 bill on charters:
 I appreciate the thought the Senate put into its bill and look forward to reviewing the final version. The House’s 2014 bill is a balanced, measured approach based on the differing perspectives of a multitude of stakeholders. It represents a workable way to help close the achievement gap and provide valuable opportunities to those students who are most at-risk in the classroom and will be the basis for our work moving forward.

The bill, if approved by the Senate, will have to wait for action on a charter bill in the House, which is not a guarantee this session. If both chambers pass legislation this session, they will have to meet in conference to hash out differences to create a compromise bill. Given how far apart the two chambers appear to be on this issue, it could be difficult to build a bridge across their divide in opinion. Of course, even if all that happens, it still has to go to the pro-charter Baker for a signature or win over enough members to make it veto-proof.