AS THE HOURS passed on Thursday night in the Massachusetts Senate, so may have any hope for charter school legislation that would avert a divisive November ballot question showdown.
Senators were considering a compromise bill that already looked like a shaky starting point for any eventual resolution of the charter debate.
By the time they were done, the bill had gotten away from Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate education committee chairwoman, who watched with dismay as her colleagues added an amendment that would effectively freeze charter growth in the state.
“Shared leadership” in Stan Rosenberg’s Senate can get messy, as the four senators who crafted the bill split over the crucial amendment, with two of them supporting it and two opposing it. Legislation intended to strike a balance between demand for more charters and concerns about their operation wound up looking more like an all-out Senate declaration against them.
Charter advocates have been gearing up for a November ballot question that would put the question directly to voters, asking them to authorize up to 12 new or expanded charters each year.
Two years ago, a bill raising the cap on charter schools passed the House of Representatives, but not the Senate. In January, Senate President Stan Rosenberg announced that the Senate would take another run at crafting legislation that could clear the 40-member chamber — and potentially head-off the ballot question.
The bill that emerged was based on months of work by Chang-Diaz and three other senators. It would allow a gradual increase in the number of charter schools, while imposing new rules on them that the sponsors said were aimed at putting charters on a level playing field with district schools. The legislation also pledged about $200 million in added statewide school spending each year for seven years, but it made the charter cap increase each year contingent on delivery of the added funds.
The bill landed with a thud.
Charter school opponents, led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said new restrictions and rules for charters were fine, and new funding was welcome, but they were opposed to anything that allowed for more charter schools.
Charter supporters, meanwhile, including Gov. Charlie Baker, said the very gradual cap increase in the bill was accompanied by so many restrictions and other hurdles that it was hard to be sure there would be any growth in charters. A pro-charter coalition declared that the bill, as written, was worse than no legislation at all.
Among the provisions charter supporters found most troubling was tying the cap increase each year to additional funds for all schools, a goal that is widely shared but for which there is no clear revenue source. Also raising alarms was a provision that would would allow communities to count in-district “innovation” schools and Horace Mann charter schools to determine when they had reached the cap for adding Commonwealth charter schools, which are the independently-run, but publicly funded, charter model at the center of the debate.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, the Republican minority leader, declared from the floor on Thursday that the bill had “more poison pills in it than Dr. Kevorkian’s apothecary.”
And that was before the arsenic chaser was dropped into it.
It came in the form of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Michael Moore that would require any new charter school proposal to get the approval of the local school committee. Those that don’t get a local OK could still open if approved by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but the state would be entirely responsible for their funding. Under the current formula, charters are funded with a combination of state and local dollars — the same mix that funds district schools in a community.
Proponents hailed the amendment for giving local voice to the decision over whether to help fund charter schools in a community. “This amendment gets right to the heart of the matter,” said Moore, a Millbury Democrat.
But what community would, if given a choice, opt to send local school dollars to a charter school? Meanwhile, it’s impossible to imagine that the state could fund charters without a local contribution from the community where their students live. That led Tarr to call the amendment “a Rube Goldberg contraption to prevent the creation of charter schools.”
Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, speaking against the amendment, painted a dark picture of the history of efforts to maintain control over important issues at the municipal level. “Local control can have a cruel edge,” he said, invoking everything from Boston’s ugly school segregation history to exclusionary zoning policies aimed at keeping more affordable housing — and its lower-income residents — out of communities.
A dejected-looking Chang-Diaz rose to oppose the Moore amendment, even as she acknowledged that her colleagues were prepared to adopt it.
She spoke about families in struggling school districts who had been repeatedly failed by local decision-makers. Chang-Diaz, whose Boston district includes thousands of low-income black and Hispanic families who have turned to charter schools in search of a quality education for their children, has said her “moral standard” for charter legislation is whether she believes it would help a families in both district and charter schools.
With the local-approval amendment, Chang-Diaz said, the bill would fail that test, though she said she would support it nonetheless as the “first step in a multistep process.”
As the night wore on, the debate seemed to get more candid, whether intentionally or not.
Chang-Diaz argued that the local-veto amendment was not necessary because communities determined to stop new Commonwealth charter schools could do so under the bill by converting enough of their district schools to “innovation” schools or district-operated Horace Mann charter schools. She seemed to be conceding a major point raised by critics of the main bill.
Sen. Marc Pacheco, a strong charter school opponent, rose to endorse the local-approval amendment, saying it wouldn’t stop charters but would simply make the state pay the full cost if a community said no. How the state would do that was less clear.
“Where does the the funding come from? Same place as the funding for the underlying bill — who knows?” he said, as laughter broke out in the chamber.
It wasn’t exactly the preferred talking point behind the $1.4 billion seven-year boost in education aid in the main bill. Rosenberg, who has insisted the Legislature would find a way to keep the funding promise if the bill passes, looked on glumly from the rostrum as Pacheco spoke, leaning his chin into his hands.
The amendment was adopted, 24-10. The four senators who drew up the main bill — dubbed by Chang-Diaz a “team of rivals” — lived up to the rival part. Ways and Means chairwoman Karen Spilka and Sen. Pat Jehlen supported the local-veto amendment, while Chang-Diaz and Sen. Dan Wolf voted against it.
Sen. Sal DiDomenico said he had been unsure where he would land on the bill that morning and had not made up his mind even an hour before the final vote. With the local-approval amendment now added to it, however, the Everett Democrat said he was prepared to support the bill.
One man’s poison is another’s elixir.
Indeed, DiDomenico turned on its head all the talk about provisions in the bill that could block new charters. “My poison pill in this is the lift on charters,” he said, making clear that it was the possibility of allowing any increase charter schools that gave him pause about voting yes.
That seemed to be the case for more than a few of those eventually supporting the bill, which passed, 22-13.
The charter legislation now heads to the House, where leaders must be wondering what version of a bill they could possibly come up with that would pass the Senate while still allowing some meaningful increase in charters.
How closely is the Baker administration following the charter debate?
The governor’s education secretary, Jim Peyser, spent Thursday afternoon and evening watching intently from the Senate gallery.
The viewing area above the Senate floor was a who’s who of the charter debate. A few seats over from Peyser sat Tom Gosnell, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Also making an appearance was Mass. Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni, who has urged charter opponents not to compromise on any legislation and instead work to derail the charter movement by defeating the November ballot question.
“I didn’t have high expectations,” Peyser said after the vote. “But I was hoping a bill would come out that at least provides a pathway for a conversation with the House. While that still may happen, it’s hard to imagine the Senate moving very far from where they are now, which is an effective moratorium on lifting the cap. The whole tone of the conversation is that charter schools are a problem that needs to be fixed as opposed to a resource we need to take more advantage of.”
They may agree on little when it comes to education policy, but Pacheco seemed to concur with Peyser’s assessment of the state of play.
“Anything that comes back from the House that has less than what we sent over, I believe, will be dead on arrival,” Pacheco told the State House News Service following the vote.
The legislative effort may not be over. But it looks close to it.