By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Lifting the cap on charter schools in certain underperforming school districts is a question that may test Gov. Deval Patrick this year or his successor next year, and a News Service survey of contenders for the Corner Office found broad, but qualified support that crosses party lines.

Republican Charlie Baker on Monday called on his rivals to join him in urging the Legislature to pass a bill lifting the cap on charters to accommodate a growing number of students on waiting lists for slots in schools in cities and towns like Boston. Baker would like to see the cap raised to accommodate children currently on waiting lists, but his campaign said he "has no plans to undo the stringent application process and approval authority of the state."

The Joint Committee on Education is working on such a bill, but Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has raised concerns with advocacy groups and fellow lawmakers about the impact additional charter schools would have on the budgets of traditional school districts, including the Boston Public Schools.

The Race to the Top Coalition, comprised of a number of public advocacy groups, says more than 13,600 students will be in a blind lottery for 2,200 open charter school seats in Boston on Wednesday, and 40,000 students are on waiting lists statewide. Boston, Lawrence, Holyoke, Fall River are among the district already at the cap.


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"Time is running out for the legislature to do the right thing for children stuck in under-performing schools, and I hope all the Democratic candidates for governor will join me in urging the legislature to advance a bill lifting the charter school cap now," Baker said in a statement. "School choice and high quality education should not be a partisan issue."

A majority of the other candidates for governor told the News Service that they too would support lifting the charter school cap in underperforming districts, but many offered conditions for their support such as additional funding for traditional public schools and a reworking of the Chapter 70 local school aid formula. The caveats offered by the candidates reflect many of same concerns espoused by lawmakers each time a cap lift is debated.

A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, the leader in polling among Democrats running for governor, said she supports lifting the cap as "just one part of the solution" to improving schools.

"She believes lifting the cap on charters must be coupled with further investment in educating all kids - including in early childhood education and extension of the school day," spokesman Kyle Sullivan said in a statement, indicating Coakley would release additional details of her plans to improve education later in the campaign.

During an interview in October on WGBH, Coakley said that some charter schools have succeeded in pioneering new approaches to education, but others "haven't done so well with their finances" and need to be held accountable. "So, we need to be with the teachers unions. I think people going into teaching because they want to teach. That's great. And people go into unions because they want the economic security of it. I don't have a problem with that. And I think that we will figure out how to make this happen," she said.

Steve Grossman, the state's treasurer, has said, "Done well, charter schools can be places to test out new ideas in education and represent additional choices for some students and parents. For these reasons, I do favor a modest increase in the number of charter schools, while continuing to invest in and fund traditional public schools that educate the overwhelming majority of our children."

The campaign of Donald Berwick, the former head of Medicaid and Medicare for the Obama administration, said the Democrat supports raising, but not eliminating the cap on charter schools and would like to increase the proportion of in-district charters and use them as incubators for new strategies to educate children that can be replicated across a school district. 

"Massachusetts' charter schools have demonstrated achievements that can serve as laboratories whose results inform mainstream public education. Don will continue and modestly expand them, but only under strict requirements around selection procedures to assure that charter schools serve students representative of the overall student population, and only if the lessons they learn and the models they develop are readily accessible to the full public education system," spokesman Leigh Appleby said.

The last time the Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick partnered to raise the cap on charter schools was in 2010 when a reform bill was passed with designs on making the state competitive in President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" competition for federal funds to improve education. The state succeeded in securing $250 million over four years from the federal government to pursue education reforms in the second round of the competition.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne is visiting Massachusetts on Tuesday and Wednesday where he will be joined by state Secretary of Education Matthew Malone for a two-day tour of Bay State schools in Worcester, Boston and Reading. The Race to the Top Coalition is also planning a rally at the State House on Wednesday in support of bills to lift the cap and give greater flexibility over school operations to districts on the cusp of falling into underperformance.

Evan Falchuk, an independent running for governor, said he would like to see a charter cap lift tied to reforms to the Chapter 70 funding formula "to account for the actual cost of kids leaving the public schools and going to charter schools."

"The failure to act when you've got 16,800 kids on a wait list for charter schools in Boston just because it's 'hard' to deal with the funding issue is the same as saying 'tough luck' to kids looking for an educational opportunity," Falchuk said in a statement.

Charter schools are paid by the district from which they take students 78 percent of the average per-pupil cost, and the state reimburses school districts 100 percent in the first year and 25 percent each of the following five years.

Charter advocates, however, say the state reimbursement program, which is divided into a facilities fee and tuition reimbursement, has been underfunded in fiscal 2014 by $27.8 million, with $75 million appropriated for reimbursements that would total $102.8 million if fully funded.

Democrat Joseph Avellone, a Wellesley biotechnology executive, offered the most tepid support for raising the charter cap, expressing a similar concern to that raised by Berwick wanting to see charters accept a diverse pool of students that reflect a district's population.

"I would only support lifting the cap if school districts assured me it was completely necessary to learn more to improve the public school system and if they enrolled the same caliber of students as that of the public school system," Avellone said in a statement. "Then these charter schools will serve their role as innovation centers for the school district. I do not want to create two separate school systems."

Three other candidates for governor - Democrat Juliette Kayyem, independent Jeffrey McCormick, and Republican Mark Fisher - did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Baker campaign spokesman Tim Buckley said charter schools, as well as traditional public schools and "non-traditional schools" must all play "essential roles" in improving education.