By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Charter school advocates rallied on Beacon Hill Monday for expansion legislation that has already cleared the House, pressing the importance of tackling the issue by the end of July and reminding lawmakers that the bill does more than simply lift the cap on enrollment.

In addition to expanding the number of charter school seats over the next five years in the lowest performing school districts, the bill passed by the House in May would also give schools on the cusp of declining into the bottom tier new flexibility to shape school days and programs to achieve better results for students.

"We have to put aside our differences and do what is best for our kids," said Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and the original sponsor in the Senate of legislation to lift the charter enrollment cap.

The Race to the Top Coalition, which includes business and civic groups that formed in 2009, held a rally inside the State House on Monday as they attempted to put pressure on the Senate to pass a bill lifting the charter school cap in the state's underperforming districts by 5 percent.

Paul Grogan, the leader of the coalition and president of the Boston Foundation, said he's optimistic that the Senate will consider the bill before formal legislative sessions end in 31 days.

"I take the Senate President at her word when she said without equivocation at the (Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce) event that she would bring it to a vote," Grogan told the News Service.


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The coalition has been engaged over the past few weeks in a campaign to educate senators on the issues in the bill, and Mary Jo Meisner, vice president for communications, community relations and public affairs at the Boston Foundation, said they encountered many senators who were not completely familiar with the legislation.

"It hasn't had the focus in the Senate that it's had in the House, but I think it's there now," Grogan added.

The rally took place in the State House with students from charter schools in Holyoke and elsewhere filling the large, marble Grand Staircase behind speakers. Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, had been listed by advocates as planning to attend, but did not appear.

Scott Given, founder of the Up Education Network, touted the successes of the two Horace Mann charter schools that his group operates in Boston. Finegold said successes in Boston have been replicated at the Up Academy in Lawrence.

Given said that without a provision included in the House bill (H 4108), his schools could be in danger of closing. Horace Mann charters were created as part of the 2010 Achievement Gap Act, and employ unionized teachers.

The 2010 law required that after five years, in addition to state approval for another five-year charter, the Horace Mann charter schools would need to get the approval of the local teachers' union to continue operating, giving the Boston Teachers Union and its president Richard Stutman the power to close the Up Education Network schools.

The bill drafted by House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Alice Peisch would remove the union signoff provision from the law. "It's a pretty critical provision," Given said.

In a June 24 e-bulletin, Stutman urged help to "stop charter school growth" and said charter schools are encouraging "the growth of a dual school system, treating some children better than others."

"Charters -- as they exist under the current law -- will drain an estimated $104.5 million from our school budgets next year. Under the proposal before the Senate, the drainage of resources will escalate," he wrote. "Charters are also increasingly taking over our school buildings under lease agreements. Under the charter expansion proposal, the appropriation of our buildings will escalate."

Also impacting charter schools this year, the state Board of Education last week approved a major change to the way the state evaluates the performance of school districts, drawing the ire of charter school advocates who argued the new formula will limit school choices for low-income families in a handful of cities. 

The change adds student improvement to the metric used to calculate performance, which has the potential to push some urban districts above the threshold used to determine where increased charter school enrollment will be allowed.

"It's understandable to want to include improvement or growth as a factor. We understand that. But the way the law is set up, it has this perverse result of the more you increase growth as a factor the fewer urban communities with the biggest need are eligible for charter schools, despite the fact that very clearly in 2010 the Legislature wanted the charter opportunity to go to the neediest kids," Grogan said.

Still, Grogan admitted it's probably too late in the year to consider asking the Legislature to address the issue.

"That's for next year," he said.