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Scot Lehigh

Patrick’s push for charter schools

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By Scot Lehigh
July 17, 2009
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US SECRETARY of Education Arne Duncan came to town yesterday to laud Governor Patrick’s latest education reform efforts - and that’s praise the governor has come to deserve.

Once a distinct charter-school skeptic, he is now calling for more of the high-performing independent public academies. Quite a few more. Under the plan Patrick announced yesterday, the number of available charter school seats in the state’s lowest-performing districts would more than triple.

That proposal won genuine enthusiasm from education reformers and the charter community. Still, though there is much to like about it, my own view is the cap lift shouldn’t be confined just to the worst-performing districts. Kids and families in other districts will also need educational alternatives as their communities reach the cap.

Further, though I hope the governor’s plan passes the Legislature largely intact, I have serious doubts. The charter community would be well-advised to hedge its bets - and increase its leverage - by taking steps to put a cap-lifting proposal on next year’s ballot.

That said, Patrick’s plan would be an important stride forward.

By doubling - from 9 to 18 - the percentage of school spending those districts can devote to charter tuition, it would spell about 27,000 new charter slots spread across 33 districts. In Boston, another 6,000 slots would be available.

The governor and Education Secretary Paul Reville have also backed off several proposals that had raised red flags in the charter community.

Patrick also hopes to aid the transformation of some traditional public schools into readiness schools, which - conceptually at least - would have the flexibility and freedom to emulate charters.

The proposal is multi-layered and complex, but essentially it gives state officials strong authority to restructure the worst 1 to 2 percent of schools, even if that means setting aside union work rules. The very worst schools could eventually be turned over to an outside agent or organization to operate.

For schools not in the intervention category, the conversion process would require buy-in by the stakeholders. But the administration has learned a lesson from Mayor Menino’s struggle with the Boston Teachers Union over pilot schools; it won’t allow union leadership to veto plans approved at the school level.

Yet despite the distinguished guest and high purpose at yesterday’s event, problems lie ahead.

For example, though Menino was part of the speaking program, that doesn’t necessarily mean the mayor supports the governor’s cap-lifting proposal. After all, Menino has his own plan for district-controlled charters. “I’d rather work with my in-district [proposal] right now,’’ he told me.

Then, of course, there are the teachers unions, who have long loathed nonunion charter schools. Asked afterward about possible union opposition, Duncan told me that he thought that was a false dichotomy.

So let’s go to Paul Toner, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“We are opposed to lifting the cap to 18 percent right now because we don’t feel it addresses the funding issues,’’ he says.

“We don’t support it as it is currently written,’’ adds Tom Gosnell, president of AFT Massachusetts.

Welcome to Massachusetts, Secretary Duncan.

Next up: the House and Senate education committee chairs want to reopen the thorny issue of charter school funding.

“I don’t think the Legislature will raise the cap to 18 percent unless we also address the negative impacts on the kids in district schools,’’ says Representative Marty Walz, the House chair.

But unless overall funding is increased, reworking the current arrangement means charters would lose out. It’s also important to recall that the state already pays districts a substantial portion of a student’s state educational dollars for three years after he or she has left for a charter.

Although Senate chair Rob O’Leary predicts that the Legislature ultimately will lift the cap, I remain skeptical.

That’s why I think the charter community needs both an inside and an outside strategy. Work with lawmakers, by all means. But if the Legislature proves an inhospitable bog, be prepared to take your case to the people.

Correction: In Wednesday’s column about Boston’s effort to crack down on loud motorcycles, I gave the wrong number for Police Commissioner Ed Davis’s office. It is 617-343-4500.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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