House swiftly OKs sweeping education measure, 119 to 35

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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The state House of Representatives passed a sweeping education bill just after midnight that aims to overhaul the state’s worst schools and expand charter schools, capping off a marathon session that began early yesterday afternoon.

The approval came swiftly in a roll call vote, after members plowed through about 150 amendments to the bill. The vote was 119 to 35.

The decisive action surprised a handful of lobbyists who watched the proceedings unfold over the course of nearly 12 hours. Movement appeared so slow at points that many predicted a second day of debate.

But many House members, responding to a push by Speaker Robert DeLeo to pass the bill in a day, remained confident the session would end with a bill ready for a conference committee today. The Senate approved a similar measure in November.

“It’s a great day for the children of Massachusetts,’’ Representative Marty Walz, the Boston Democrat who cochairs the Joint Committee on Education, said in an interview after the vote. “This bill will lead to significant improvement in our public schools and will make great strides in closing our state’s achievement gap.’’

The bill, House members and the Patrick administration say, is necessary to help thousands of students stay in school and give them the preparation they need to succeed in college. It would also help better position the state to qualify for about $250 million in new federal stimulus money reserved for states that aggressively work to make over their worst schools.

The state must have the legislation passed and signed by the governor by midmonth to be eligible for funding. Both chambers are expected to vote on a final bill by the middle of next week, after a conference committee irons out differences.

“With this bill, the House is taking strong action to eliminate our unacceptable achievement gap and ensure that every child in Massachusetts receives a world class education,’’ DeLeo said in a statement. “For years, the children of Massachusetts have been recognized among the highest achieving students in the country despite a troubling gap in achievement. This bill will promote accountability and innovation in our schools and position our Commonwealth to capitalize on the significant federal dollars that are at stake.’’

The day kicked off with an 11 a.m. rally on the Grand Staircase at the State House, which drew drawing about 100 parents, students, and leaders of charter schools urging passage of the bill. The bill calls for doubling the number of charter school seats in districts with the lowest MCAS scores.

As debate initially unfolded in the early afternoon, one legislator after another took to the floor of the House to urge their colleagues to pass the bill, calling it an urgent remedy to close an alarming achievement gap among students of different socioeconomic status.

“For many of us, this is a life-and-death vote for many of the kids in our community,’’ said Marie St. Fleur, a Boston Democrat. “We are here because a number of children in our Commonwealth are not doing OK. They don’t have access to a quality education. . . . We have an opportunity to make real change in the lives of so many young people.’’

At least one state representative said she was motivated to support the bill as a way to head off a proposed ballot question this November that would allow for unfettered growth of charter schools, which currently are restricted to no more than 120 such institutions statewide.

Teachers unions are particularly worried about such a ballot question passing because most charter schools do not have teacher union contracts.

James Peyser, treasurer of the committee pushing for the ballot question, sent a letter to DeLeo on Tuesday, indicating that if the House bill survives on the floor without changes that would harm charter schools and ultimately becomes law, the committee would scrap its ballot question.