Education chair sees charter expansion bill clearing House

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 19, 2014…. Just more than a handful of mostly urban school districts would be impacted by a proposal to gradually expand charter school enrollment in Massachusetts in what the lead sponsor of the legislation described as a “very modest” increase targeted at the lowest performing school districts.

Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and House chair of the Education Committee, said the proposed charter school expansion that the House plans to consider on Wednesday also includes restrictions to ensure that new charter school seats are open to a broad cross-section of students with the option for charter schools to extend preference to students at the highest risk of dropping out.

“We really want to focus on the districts that are lowest performing and make sure the students that are lowest performing have the opportunity to have more options,” Peisch told the News Service.

Under the bill, the cap on charter school enrollment in districts performing among the lowest 10 percent across the state would not start to increase the 2016-2017 school year, climbing 1 percent a year for five years starting in fiscal 2017 to a peak of 23 percent of net school spending.

Based on current conditions, Peisch said, the cap lift would effectively only impact six school districts in that category that are bumping up against the 18 percent net school spending limit on charter enrollment. Those districts are Boston, Chelsea, Fall River, Greenfield, Holyoke and North Adams.

“There appear to be only certain districts where the charter schools are a significant actor,” Peisch said, explaining that most other districts in the Level 4 or 5 categories are still well below their spending cap on charter enrollment.

Charter school operators hoping to take advantage of the new cap space would be required to prove that they are already successful providers and use an “opt-out” lottery system making all students eligible to attend the charter school under the district’s assignment policy without any required application process for the school. Parents of students selected for admission through the lottery would be able to decline an offer of admission if they preferred the traditional public school.

Admission preference would be allowed for students at the highest risk of dropping out of school, Peisch said.

In addition to expanding access to charter schools, the bill seeks to build off the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 by allowing the commissioner of elementary and secondary education to designate a select number of mid-level schools at the highest risk of falling into underperformance as “Challenge Schools.”

These so-called challenge schools would be required to develop two-year turnaround plans, and administrators would be given increased flexibility to experiment with curriculum and instruction, including longer school days.

After heavy lobbying by interest groups this session, House Speaker Robert DeLeo chose to bring the charter school bill forward in his branch despite the Education Committee’s inability to reach consensus on the issue.

The financial impacts on traditional public schools if the cap on charter school enrollment is raised has been cited as a reason for the impasse between charter school advocates and those with concerns about allowing additional charter seats in districts labeled as underperforming by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Supporters hope the move by the House and Senate last week to appropriate an additional $27.6 million to fully fund the charter school reimbursement program for local school districts will alleviate some of that apprehension.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and Peisch’s co-chair of the Education Committee, voiced some of the strongest opposition to lifting the charter cap without full reimbursement funding for local districts, and her opposition was one of the main reasons the committee could not agree on a proposal.

Chang-Diaz declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement through her spokeswoman.

“There are things I like; there are things I’d like to see improved. I look forward to reviewing whatever comes from the House,” the senator said in the statement.

Peisch said she planned to reach out to her colleagues to address any concerns they might have with the legislation, but did not hesitate when asked whether it would pass the House: “Yes,” she said.

Senate President Therese Murray recently said she was hopeful that Chang-Diaz and Peisch could reach consensus on a charter expansion bill, and promised to allow a vote in the Senate if the bill emerged from the House.”If it comes out of the House, we’ll act on it,” Murray said during a speech to business executives. She added, “I know that some of the suburban school systems are taking an inordinate amount of money out of their system going to some of the charter schools – and cherry-picking the top kids and not taking the kids that don’t have parents that aren’t quite as motivated. But it’s a discussion that’s ongoing.”

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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