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SCOT LEHIGH

Candidates on charter schools

IN EVERY election, certain issues require the candidates to confront a thorny question: Whom do I side with here, the public or the powerful groups who hold a contrary position?

Charter schools present just such a dilemma. Probably no single matter generates as much gnashing of teeth among teachers' unions, school committees, and superintendents, who, with monotonous regularity, mount thinly veiled efforts to ambush charter school funding.

Although they are public schools, commonwealth charters operate outside traditional public-school governance, answering to the state Board of Education rather than to local school committees and superintendents. None is unionized, though the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers is hoping to do just that.

For well-to-do families, it's easy to opt out of underperforming public schools. But for those of moderate means, other choices are harder to come by.

The state's 49 commonwealth charters, whose students are chosen by lottery, have become one popular alternative for some 19,000 Massachusetts students, while thousands more are on waiting lists. With innovative approaches that often feature a longer school day, and sometimes a longer year as well, charters also inject healthy competition into the public system.

But as charters have grown in number, so has the opposition to them, particularly among the teachers' unions, whose dollars and organizational clout can prove valuable electoral assets for favored candidates.

A new State House News Poll done by KRC Communications Research helps highlight the tension. By a ratio of more than 2 to 1 -- 67 percent to 28 percent -- Massachusetts residents support charter schools, it finds. (Conducted March 15 to 17, that survey of 400 state residents has a margin of error of 4.8 percent.)

In some cities, charters are now pressing up against the state legislative cap that says no more than 9 percent of a district's spending can go to the innovative academies annually.

Charter supporters want to more than double the dollars that can flow to charters in districts where the MCAS results are in the lowest 10 percent of all statewide scores for two years in a row. That basic idea also won solid support in the new poll, with 54 percent approving and 37 percent disapproving.

Some quick comments about the poll. The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association paid to have those questions in the survey. (The bimonthly poll is funded in part by including such paid queries.) But I've read the questions pollster Gerry Chervinsky asked, and they struck me as neutrally worded.

So how does the gubernatorial field stack up on the issue of charter schools?

Kerry Healey's campaign says the lone Republican gubernatorial candidate strongly backs charters.

''She supports lifting the cap on charter schools," says campaign manager Tim O'Brien. ''She thinks they are a great asset to Massachusetts."

Republican-turned-independent candidate Christy Mihos says he supports the concept of charter schools, but the convenience-store magnate doesn't sound particularly entrepreneurial in adding, ''I am just not ready to lift the cap."

Democrat Thomas Reilly, who styles himself an independent-minded moderate, is a charter school supporter. ''In chronically struggling school districts, Tom would be in favor of raising the cap," says campaign spokesman Corey Welford. How far? The attorney general is still mulling that, Welford says.

Fellow Democrat Deval Patrick, who is running as the progressive favorite, opposes lifting the cap, and indeed, seems skeptical about commonwealth charters in general.

On his website, Patrick writes: ''I will support charter schools (especially Horace Mann charters) by developing funding mechanisms that do not disadvantage district schools and measuring charter schools in part by whether they are producing innovative ideas that can be imported into district schools."

Given that the schools at issue are not the (automatically unionized) Horace Mann charters but rather the commonwealth charters; that the Legislature retooled the charter school funding formula in 2004 to placate opponents; and that the hurdles to importing innovations lie in part in the regular district schools, Patrick's supposed support seems awfully qualified.

Finally, there's Democrat Chris Gabrieli, who joined the race last week. ''Chris supports lifting the cap," says spokesman Joe Ganley. ''He thinks the smart way to do it is as part of a larger package of carrots and sticks to get the public schools to change."

Charters are an important part of Massachusetts's decade-plus effort to improve public education. If you're a charter supporter, let the candidates know how you feel about where they stand.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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