New charter schools bill moves to the Senate

Proposal allows state to step in

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 11, 2009

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A key legislative committee approved a bill yesterday that would allow more charter schools in the state’s most troubled districts while giving the state the power to take over failing schools.

The bill, a merger of proposals unveiled by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston over the summer, are expected to receive fast-track consideration in the Legislature, with the Senate likely to take it up as early as Monday. The goal is for both chambers to approve the bills by the end of the legislative session Wednesday.

The governor, many legislators, and education groups believe that swift approval is key to better positioning the state for a chunk of the more than $4 billion that the Obama administration is promising to a handful of states pursuing innovative changes in public education.

But the governor’s bills have been rife with controversy over funding and the loss of local control, with resistance led by superintendents, school committees, and teachers unions.

“I think it’s important to pass the bill not only to qualify for the race-to-the-top funds, but because it is the right thing for our children,’’ said Martha M. Walz, cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education. “The bill focuses on two things: closing the achievement gap in those schools and communities where some children are lagging behind, and for communities doing well, it creates a method for them to do even better.’’

In revamping the governor’s proposals, the Joint Committee on Education tried to soothe worries of local leaders by giving them greater powers to radically shake up failing schools. The bill would enable districts to form partnerships with museums, colleges, and other outside groups to run schools, even successful ones looking to bolster academics.

Under the reworked proposal, local school districts would be granted the authority to convert failing schools into charterlike schools. Supporters say these schools would be laboratories of innovation because they would operate under fewer teacher union rules and would have greater freedom from the central office in making decisions about curriculum, staffing, and budgeting.

Patrick’s proposal gave the state the power to convert failing schools in a similar way, but, under the legislative changes, the school districts could have a first stab before the state could step in.

The change is viewed as a major victory for Menino, who garnered widespread support among local leaders statewide last summer after filing legislation to empower school committees to create “in-district’’ charter schools. Unlike traditional charter schools, the in-district charter schools would be controlled by the local district.

The proposal was the cornerstone of Menino’s education agenda during his mayoral campaign, in which he was criticized for not moving quickly enough to turn around failing schools.

Menino said the bill shows a lot of promise.

“The Education Committee has advanced legislation that will allow us to inject flexibility and innovation into our local schools, and I am pleased that the bill is so closely aligned with my proposal to create in-district charter schools,’’ Menino said in a statement.

The governor’s office was equally encouraged.

“Our legislation is designed to close unacceptable achievement gaps, promote innovative teaching and learning, and provide progressive choices for our students and families,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “Swift passage will ensure Massachusetts continues to lead the nation in education excellence.’’

Statewide associations representing superintendents, school committees, and teacher unions had not had a chance yesterday to delve into the details of the bill, but were pleased that the committee attempted to find some common ground.

“There’s a lot to like about what they are proposing,’’ said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “It provides significant tools for superintendents and school committees to help move some of these underperforming schools along.’’

Union leaders expressed concerns about scaling back teacher contract provisions. Under the proposal, if a teacher is not rehired at a school being converted into an in-district charter school, then the teacher would have 12 months to find a job at another district school or would be let go, regardless of seniority or good performance reviews.

“It’s like returning to the days of old, when before collective bargaining a superintendent or principal could let a teacher go without cause,’’ said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “If there are teachers in a school who are truly underperforming, then the principal should evaluate them and then follow the process for termination.’’

All groups expressed disappointment that there were no proposed changes to the way the state funds traditional charter schools, which run independently of local school districts. Students take several thousand dollars of state aid from districts to their charter school, which in Boston will amount to nearly $50 million this year.

Under the bill, the number of charter schools allowed to open in districts with the lowest MCAS scores - such as Boston, Lawrence and Worcester - would double. The new schools would have to make a concerted effort to recruit and retain students who historically struggle academically, such as those learning to speak English or with learning disabilities.

The bill would also require charter schools to replace students who leave the school, a practice that many do not follow, causing enrollment to drop off in the upper grades.