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House targets charter schools

Seeks moratorium on new approvals

The state Board of Education would be barred from approving new charter schools until July 2005 or until a special panel crafts a new financing formula, under a measure lawmakers cleared late last night.

The proposal, an amendment to the House budget, would also delay the opening of five schools that received charters this year.

The Senate and Governor Mitt Romney have to sign off on the measure if it is to become law. The Senate approved a moratorium on new charter schools last year, but Romney has been a strong charter-school supporter. Because the House approved the amendment on a voice vote, it is not clear whether there are sufficient votes to override a veto.

Marc Kenen of the Massachusetts Charter School Association called the measure "a loss for parents and a setback for education reform" and said he was especially dismayed that children who are already enrolled in the charter schools that won't open on time will have to wait to attend them.

"While the association welcomes the review of the charter funding formula, we do not believe that it is necessary to deny these parents the educational choices they seek for their children while the review takes place," Kenen said in a written statement issued after the vote.

Students expecting to enroll at the five new charter schools -- Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, Community Charter School of Cambridge, KIPP Academy Lynn Charter School, Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter School in North Adams, and the Salem Academy Charter School -- will have to return to other schools.

Charter-school critics, meanwhile, described the suspension as long overdue.

"It has really restored my faith in the process," said Pam Richardson, a member of the Framingham School Committee. "I feel like the voices of so many school committee members across Massachusetts have been heard and the Legislature is responding to our concerns. It is really uplifting."

Charter schools, which have been operating in Massachusetts since 1995, are supported by public money, but they enjoy autonomy that other public schools do not. Most of them can implement their own curriculum, hire their own teachers and principals, and control their own budgets. The state gives them a set amount of money per student, but they have to raise capital dollars themselves.

In return for its freedom, a charter school must attract and retain students and produce positive results within five years or risk losing its charter, which is granted by the state Board of Education. The idea is to remove bureaucratic shackles that may hold back teachers and students, and encourage educational innovation that might be transplanted into regular public schools.

But critics say Massachusetts has not held charter schools academically accountable or carefully policed their spending of taxpayer money. They also charge that charter schools harm regular public schools by siphoning money from them.

Many of the state's 57 charter schools post higher MCAS scores than traditional public schools, but as a whole they have not outperformed them.

Richardson said she might view charter schools more favorably if the legislative "working group" called for in the amendment comes up with a funding formula that has less of an impact on public schools.

"It would be wonderful if both public district schools and charter schools could work together to provide the best quality of education for all our children in the Commonwealth," she said.

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