Massachusetts Rejects Bill to Raise Cap on Charter Enrollment

The charter school movement faced a setback on Thursday when the Massachusetts State Senate refused to pass legislation that would have gradually paved the way for more charter school enrollment in low performing districts, especially in urban districts like Boston. The author of the bill was Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaican Plain). The vote was 26-13 against.

Pro-charter supporters believe that charters will have positive effect on these districts; those senators who were opposed did not think it was prudent to expand the creation of charter schools during this legislative session, says Matt Murphy of MassLive.com.

Some senators questioned whether charter school reform has, in the past two decades, lived up to its promises to use the schools as laboratories for the newest and best practices that could then be implemented in traditional schools.

The vote against a bill which Democratic leaders brought to the floor for debate was a surprise to many Massachusetts Senate-watchers.  Although charter advocates did not agree with some of the provisions which had been added to bill, they were willing to wait for it to go into a conference committee with the House which would have given them time for lobbying for which changes, in the end, they would be willing to support.

“You might be surprised at this, but this was the democratic process,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said after the vote. “We said we would put a bill out and we put a bill on the floor. It was not a leadership vote. It was a conscience vote. Everyone was told to vote the way they felt they did, and there was a huge divide as you saw on the floor and if you listened to the debate between the urban and suburban districts. The suburban districts feel very much that money is coming out of their school districts and that the charter schools are not giving them what the promise was.”

This will surely not be the last time we visit this issue, and when we take it up again, we will look back on today as a moment where we failed to live up to our obligations to the children of Massachusetts and their families,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, speaking on behalf of the Race to the Top Coalition.

Unions, on the other hand, were encouraged by the vote.

“We congratulate the Senate for taking a stand for public schools and for public school students, many of whom live in poverty and who need all the resources they can get. The vote against raising the cap keeps resources in our locally controlled public schools where they are most needed,” said Tom Gosnell, president of American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts.

Charles Baker, Republican gubernatorial candidate, said that the Senate reacted to political pressure and delivered urban families with children in struggling schools no access to higher performing schools.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D- Somerville) said that this bill would set up a situation that would result in big spending on something that has not yet been been proven to reduce the achievement gap, not only in Massachusetts, but nationwide.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association believes that Chang-Diaz promoted provisions that went against the charter school community.

“The Senate is going to deny high-quality education choices to thousands of families across the state,’’ Kenen said in a phone interview. “The bill had some important proposals that would have made the charter-cap lift null and void before it even started.”