Thousands more children in the worst school systems could attend charter schools under a plan Governor Mitt Romney wants to push through the Legislature this year to give students a way out of failing schools.
Romney's proposal goes further than even charter school advocates requested: He would eliminate the cap on the amount of money a school district can spend on the independently run public schools. His proposal would affect some of the largest districts in the state, including Boston and Springfield, and could allow more than 20,000 new slots in charter schools, according to state figures. That would more than double the number of students in the state's 56 charter schools, which say they have thousands of students on waiting lists.
But key legislators, as well as charter school advocates, said yesterday that Romney's proposal is unlikely to pass. Senator Robert A. Antonioni, chairman of the Education Committee, said that he supports lifting the cap, but that Romney's measure goes too far.
"I think that has little chance of succeeding," said Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat. "I don't support it."
Romney's plan would lift the cap in school districts that score in the lowest 10 percent on the state's MCAS for two straight years. The proposal would not let the schools grow unfettered; the state caps student enrollment and the number of charter schools. But Romney's office said the proposal would provide more options for families of children in low-scoring schools.
"We believe it's the right course of action to take to give parents as much choice as possible," said Ann Reale, senior policy adviser to the governor.
In the Legislature, any proposal on charter schools will probably face a fight. Largely because of the way they are funded, charter schools have been controversial since the first ones opened a decade ago. School superintendents and public school advocates have been huddling to prevent expanding charter schools, protesting that charter schools drain money from their budgets despite changes in the state's budgeting.
Last year Romney tried to lift all three caps on charter schools, but the Legislature pushed back with a moratorium on new charter schools, which Romney vetoed.
Antonioni, who supports charter schools, filed legislation in December to lift the cap on the amount a low-scoring school district can divert from its budget to charter schools, to 20 percent from 9 percent. His idea would roughly double the number of students allowed.
Antonioni said his bill is less punitive than Romney's, because it would freeze the cap if the school districts moved out of the bottom 10 percent of scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. The cities and towns that fall into that group are Boston, Brockton, Cambridge, Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, New Bedford, North Adams, Somerville, Southbridge, Springfield, Webster, and Worcester, Antonioni said.
Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association, said he is pinning his hopes on Antonioni's measure, but thought it was encouraging that Romney and Antonioni, from opposing parties, at least agreed that the cap should be lifted.
"We see the bill that Antonioni submitted as the bill with a realistic possibility of passing the Legislature," Kenen said.
Representative Marie P. St. Fleur, also a charter school advocate and the most recent leader of the Education Committee in the House, opposes Romney's plan. The Dorchester Democrat said she was worried about reports of low-performing charter schools, insufficient oversight, and taking money from regular public schools at a time that budgets are tight.
"I would not lift the cap at this time," she said. "I think we have a lot of work to do in making sure that what we have works."
Romney is a longtime charter school advocate, telling the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents last week "I love them," despite the group's criticism that charter schools drain money from regular public schools.
Charter schools serve about 18,000 students statewide. Since they were allowed under the state's education reform act more than a decade ago, the number of charter schools has grown to more than 50 statewide, with three more opening next year. Overall, they serve about 2 percent of the states' nearly 1 million students.
The schools are often formed by groups of parents and teachers and have more latitude in budgets, hiring and firing teachers, and what they teach. The schools' charters must be renewed every five years, and charter schools can be closed if they are not up to par.
The Boston school department plans to oppose lifting the cap. In Cambridge, Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn said he is facing cuts and is lobbying parents to stay in the district instead of moving to charter schools: "It would directly affect the children who stay put in Cambridge public schools because the revenue follows the child to the charter."