By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- In a blow to the charter school movement in Massachusetts, the Senate on Thursday soundly rejected legislation that would have gradually lifted the cap on charter enrollment in poorly performing school districts, derailing an attempt this year to expand schooling options in primarily urban districts like Boston.
While proponents touted the positive impact of some charters in their districts and the desire to give parents greater choice, senators opposed to the bill argued that there should be no rush to expand charters this session.
Several senators also questioned whether a two-decade old education reform law establishing charters had fulfilled its promise of using the schools as laboratories for best practices that could be replicated in traditional public schools.
"It was always an open question as to whether the Senate was going to pass it, and as we saw today the votes are not there to lift the cap. The membership is just too skeptical about charter schools, but up until last night I think it was a dead heat," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and author of the Senate bill. "Once the votes break a certain way, things sort of have a gravitational pull, but I think there was a path, however narrow, to get it through the Senate."
The rare vote against a bill that Democrats in leadership allowed to move to the floor for debate startled many observers who declared the charter school issue "dead" for the session. The House voted 114-35 in favor of lifting the cap in May.
"I don't think there will be any more discussion of charter schools this session," said a disappointed Sen. Barry Finegold, who supported the bill after sharing success stories of charter schools in Lawrence.
In successive actions, the Senate rejected on a 13-26 vote Chang-Diaz's proposal that had moved through the Senate Ways and Means Committee as an amendment. The Senate proceeded in a separate 9-30 vote to also defeat the underlying bill that had cleared the House.
While charter advocates opposed some of the provisions in the Chang-Diaz bill - most notably a trigger that would have blocked an annual cap lift if reimbursements to local districts were not fully funded by the Legislature - most hoped to advance the bill into a conference committee with the House affording additional time to lobby for the final changes they could support.
"This will surely not be the last time we visit this issue, and when we take it up again, we will look back on today as a moment where we failed to live up to our obligations to the children of Massachusetts and their families," said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, speaking on behalf of the Race to the Top Coalition.
Unions, meanwhile, cheered the bill's defeat. "We congratulate the Senate for taking a stand for public schools and for public school students, many of whom live in poverty and who need all the resources they can get. The vote against raising the cap keeps resources in our locally controlled public schools where they are most needed," said Tom Gosnell, president of American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker issued a statement suggesting the Senate "bowed to political pressure and handed urban families stuck in struggling schools a massive defeat by shutting down access to high performing schools."
Chang-Diaz introduced the bill for debate with a speech that riffed off of President Obama's famous "Yes, we can" slogan imploring her colleagues to shake the polarizing rhetoric that has come to define many past debates on the merits of charter schools. Chang-Diaz said she believes there is a way to balance the interests of both sides on the issue, but suggested she would need to "reflect" on why her proposal fell short.
Senate President Therese Murray, noting that she voted against the 1993 education reform bill that established charter schools, said she did not direct the outcome of the vote. Murray did not vote on Wednesday, as is common for the president.
"You might be surprised at this, but this was the democratic process," she told the News Service after the vote. "We said we would put a bill out and we put a bill on the floor. It was not a leadership vote. It was a conscience vote. Everyone was told the vote the way they felt they did, and there was a huge divide as you saw on the floor and if you listened to the debate between the urban and suburban districts. The suburban districts feel very much that money is coming out of their school districts and that the charter schools are not giving them what the promise was."
>>>>>>For a video of Senate President Murray's comments click here: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-16murray/ <<<<<<<<
In some ways, the vote could be looked at as a reflection of the changing makeup of the Senate that has seen an influx of more liberal members in recent years. Murray said she was surprised by the final tally, and noted that "progressives" voted against the bills.
"I'm hoping they will put a commission to look at the foundation funding and look at maybe expanded learning time in that foundation funding and how charter schools are part of that foundation funding and maybe that will change the debate," Murray said, suggesting the study could be added to a supplemental budget later in the year.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said the proposed charter cap lift in the bill would not occur until the fall of 2017, negating any argument for pushing legislation through before the end of the month since it would not take effect for years.
Others like Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, of Arlington, and Sen. Jason Lewis, of Winchester, suggested more care must be taken to study why best practices in charter schools aren't being replicated more often in traditional district schools. Jehlen said the money proposed for expanding charters would be better put towards early education, and several senators expressed concern that they couldn't see the "end game" and worried about creating two competing public school systems.
While much of the focus of the debate was on charter schools, the bills also included measures to help struggling schools on the brink of being labeled "underperforming" develop turnaround plans to avoid more serious state interventions.
Rep. Alice Peisch, the House Education Committee chairwoman, said she was disappointed by the vote.
"I'm especially disappointed that they chose to kill the entire bill since there were many different areas covered in the bill and at the end of the day that bill not going forward is not helpful to improving the education of students across the Commonwealth," Peisch said.
While Peisch said she intended to review the "very limited options" for resurrecting the so-called "challenge school" sections of the bill, Chang-Diaz said she was dubious about its prospects for passage so late in the session, which ends on July 31.
"Very little is impossible in the Legislature but I wouldn't handicap it as likely, which is why I think this was a real lost opportunity today," Chang-Diaz said.
Murray said she thought the school turnaround initiatives would have a "very good chance" of passing on their own, and encouraged Peisch and Chang-Diaz to talk. "I think if they had been more unified or there had been more unification on the committee maybe things would have gone easier," she said.
Chang-Diaz said she didn't feel as though she had been abandoned by members of Senate leadership, who allowed the bill to advance only to vote against it on the floor.
"I appreciate that they brought it to the floor. It's an issue that deserved a vote. While I'm certainly very disappointed in the outcome and I think it was a huge lost opportunity to do something positive, I think what you saw in the Senate today was an incredibly open, robust, honest, passionate debate," she said.
Chang-Diaz also said it was too early to say whether she might have tried a different tact politically if she had it to do over again.
"Those aren't the kinds of questions you should answer 30 seconds, proverbially, after a vote happens. I feel a calm about my position," Chang-Diaz said, who described her district as one that requires her to balance the interest of families in both systems.
In a statement, Massachusetts Charter Public School Association President Marc Kenen said, "The Senate's rejection of legislation to lift the cap on charter public schools is an affront to parents whose children are trapped in underperforming district schools. An opportunity to expand access to high performing public schools has been lost."
Kenen said 45,000 children on waiting lists for charter schools and alleged that "misinformation about charters is driving policy at the State House."