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Group lambastes Mass. curbs on charter schools

Warns restrictions jeopardize US aid

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 13, 2010

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Massachusetts has one of the most restrictive laws on charter school growth in the nation, according to a report being released today by a leading charter school organization, which is urging the Legislature to scrap all limits.

The report will be distributed to legislators as a conference committee tries to negotiate a compromise on an overhaul of public education, ahead of a tentative vote by each chamber tomorrow. Provisions will probably call for increasing the number of charter schools in some districts, but would still maintain an overall limit.

By not moving more aggressively to expand charter schools, Massachusetts is running the risk of not qualifying for $250 million in federal stimulus money being offered in President Obama’s “Race to the Top’’ competition, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit that has been advocating for unfettered charter school growth across the country.

“The legislation is a step in the right direction, but it’s still constraining growth,’’ said Todd Ziebarth, the alliance’s vice president, who coauthored the report. “Massachusetts has the most caps in the country.’’

Charter schools, which are independently run public schools, operate under fewer state regulations than traditional schools and rarely have teacher unions. Supporters say those conditions foster academic innovation and have been validated by high MCAS scores, but critics say some schools have been stunning flops, prompting state shutdowns.

State law restricts charter schools to no more than 120 statewide, limits enrollment to 4 percent of the total number of public school students statewide, and dictates that no more than 9 percent of a school district’s net spending can be dedicated to charter school tuition. Every time students leave their school district for a charter school, they take with them thousands of dollars in state aid, prompting outcries that they are draining resources from students who remain in traditional schools.

Both the Senate and House bills seek to loosen or eliminate restrictions on charter school growth, but the language varies tremendously in each bill.

The report’s findings were no surprise to Marc Kenen, head of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

“We’ve always known Massachusetts has more caps than any state in the country, which is why we have been advocating that the Legislature adopt the broadest cap raise as possible,’’ Kenen said. “We think anything that hinders the growth of charter schools and more opportunities for families to [get] a quality public education should be done away with.’’

The report did, however, give Massachusetts among the highest marks for the overall quality of its approximately 60 charter schools, for its insistence on holding the schools accountable for results, and for the funding the state provides to the schools.

Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Education, defended charter school growth restrictions. He said the limits enable the state to monitor the schools for quality, while also being conscientious about the fiscal impact the charter schools can have on traditional school districts.

“We are confident the final bill will include a smart cap increase on charter schools,’’ Palumbo said, pointing out that it would raise the maximum numbers in many urban areas that are near their caps.

“We think it’s the right thing to do,’’ he said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.