By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- A state senator charged with steering a bill that would raise or eliminate the cap on charter school seats said Tuesday she has tried to work out a compromise to mitigate financial stresses on traditional public schools if the cap was lifted, but has met resistance from charter school advocates.

"I have been on record in both words and action that I am committed to getting a bill out of committee that continues to close the gap between populations served by charters and districts, mitigates the financial stresses that even the best charters present for school districts, and allows targeted expansion of good charters," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in a statement released Tuesday moments after the Education Committee voted to request an extension to give it more time to work on a charter school reform bill.

"To that end, I've offered multiple proposals for balanced compromises. These proposals have been met with consistent "no's" from the charter advocate community, with no counter proposals that bring us toward a compromise. While I am disappointed that we must resort to a one-week extension today, I remain committed to forging a resolution. My door is wide open to anyone who has ideas about how we can move forward on a middle path that treats all kids with compassion and fairness," said Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who co-chairs the committee.

The financial impacts on traditional public schools if the cap on charter school enrollment is raised has been cited as a reason for the impasse between charter school advocates and those who oppose allowing any additional charter seats located in districts labeled as underperforming by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, one of the organizations pushing for more charter school openings, said in a statement from the Race to the Top Coalition that advocates are "ready to discuss any and all reasonable proposals that benefit students and address other concerns without unfairly penalizing charters or other school improvement efforts."

"This is a critical opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of students who need and deserve the best public education possible," Grogan said after the committee sought more time for talks in the face of a biennial bill-reporting deadline on Wednesday. "To leave them in low-performing schools without needed support or quality school options is simply unacceptable, and we are confident that lawmakers are getting that message."

The issue has long been contentious on Beacon Hill with lawmakers getting pressure from various constituencies. Both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Deval Patrick recently weighed in, saying they hope the impasse can be overcome before the formal segment of the legislative session ends in July.

Lawmakers on the Education Committee requested the week-long extension to report on charter school bills (S 235/H 425), filed by Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Boston) and Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover) that would eliminate the charter cap in underperforming school districts and give public schools on the verge of being labeled underperforming more leeway in budget, hiring and curriculum decisions.

Chang-Diaz said requesting an extension is an indication "that there is work left to do. We are not there yet."

Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), the House committee co-chair, said lawmakers are considering different ways to give school districts some reimbursement relief, but nothing has been finalized yet.

"The hope is that we can come to some resolution within a week," Peisch told the News Service Tuesday.

"My view is there may be some different ways that we can give some relief that will give districts that are worried about this some comfort. I don't want to minimize their concern," Peisch said.

The committee wants until March 25, 2014 to make its final report. 

Opponents of increasing the number of charter school seats argue it unfairly shifts money away from traditional public schools. Some fighting the move to increase the number of slots available at charters have expressed concerns that the Legislature might be backing off its previous commitment to help school districts deal with the financial implications of more charter schools.

In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, the Legislature did not fully reimburse school districts that lost students to charter schools. The Legislature eventually passed a supplemental budget in fiscal 2013 to help close the reimbursement gap. In fiscal 2014, school districts saw a 65 to 70 percent reimbursement rate. It is estimated it would cost an additional $28 million to fully reimburse school districts in fiscal year 2014, according to Peisch.

"I am very hopeful that at some point during this fiscal year we will in fact do a supplementary budget that will increase that number," Peisch said, referring to the fiscal 2014 reimbursement rate.

During Tuesday's committee meeting, Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a member of the committee, said lawmakers should not consider lifting the charter school cap until state education officials revamp the methods used to label schools as underperforming. While most of the focus and media attention centers on Boston schools, 29 other communities will be affected, Jehlen said.

Jehlen suggested lawmakers and education officials need to change how schools' are measured before raising the charter school cap in certain communities.

"Before adding new ways to use this flawed system, such as raising the cap in particular communities, we should align the measure with the remedies," she said. "If we measure schools just by MCAS scores, we should use remedies that match the problem of poverty: universal pre-K, wrap-around services, replacing for example the mental health service."

Jehlen also said that local school boards should make the decisions about whether to increase the number of charter school seats available, since they are the ones most affected.

"We should resist the impulse to continue to add top-down control and mandates," Jehlen said.

The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association released a letter Tuesday signed by 154 business leaders urging the Education Committee to release a reform bill, arguing if there were more openings available at charter schools, more students in underperforming schools would have a chance for success.

According to the association, more than half the 29 lowest performing districts in the state, including cities like Boston, Holyoke, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, and Chelsea, are either at the cap or have room for only one more charter.

"We believe this is a positive sign that the Committee is intent on getting a bill done that will ensure that more children will have access to the high quality education that charter schools have been providing for more than 20 years in the Commonwealth," Marc Kenen, executive director of the association, said in a statement after the committee met on Tuesday. "We will continue to advocate for our schools and entertain reasonable compromise proposals that do not cause significant financial harm to our schools. We look forward to working with the Chairs of the Education Committee until a bill is sent to the full Legislature for a vote."

Speaker DeLeo last week said he's hopeful for action on the issue this session. "I'm hopeful before the session ends we can get something done," DeLeo said, responding to a question from a reporter.