By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- House lawmakers on Wednesday resurrected legislation that would lift the cap on charter school enrollment in underperforming school districts, adopting a new version of the bill after the Education Committee failed to agree on a proposal.
During a lightly attended session Wednesday morning, the House adopted a plan offered by Education Committee Co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch that allows more charter schools without addressing increases in reimbursements to traditional public schools that some lawmakers and advocates have demanded.
Peisch said the new bill contains many of elements that were being considered by the committee, but is silent on reimbursement funding. The bill contains increased flexibility for certain underperforming school districts and a "modest" enrollment cap increase for charter schools in the lowest performing districts.
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 with concerns about allowing any additional charter seats located in districts labeled as underperforming by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The House vote effectively moves the issue out of the Education Committee, which was unable to agree on a bill after months of talks and in the face of a biennial reporting deadline. The Peisch bill is now being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee. Peisch informed Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate Education Committee co-chair, that she was filing her own version of the bill, known as act to improve student achievement.
"The subject matter of this bill, I think was too important, to die by using procedural rules and not allowing the bill to advance so there could be a full debate in the Legislature," Peisch told the News Service Wednesday.
Over the weekend Chang-Diaz and Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Boston) offered a plan that would have tied annual increases in the cap to full reimbursement to local school districts that lose students to charter schools. Peisch and the Race to the Top Coalition, a group that has pushed for charter school expansion, opposed linking the enrollment cap to reimbursement, an idea Chang-Diaz promoted as a compromise.
Peisch said her plan could enable the issue to reach the floors of the House and Senate. "This does give an opportunity for the bill to be taken up in the Senate if and when it goes through the House," she said.
Speaker DeLeo has said he was hopeful for action on the issue this session.
After the committee was unable to reach a compromise in time to meet the Tuesday evening deadline, Chang-Diaz released a statement saying she was "sad that obstinacy and polarized rhetoric stood in the way of compromise and progress." She added, "The fact that too many parties could not get out of their corners to find a practical middle reminds me of the dysfunction in Washington DC right now. Unfortunately it's children in all public school systems, district and charter alike, who are suffering for it."
Charter school advocates, including the Race to the Top Coalition, a group of business, education and civic leaders, urged the committee to reject the compromise proposal, arguing it was "completely inappropriate" to tie the issue of funding with the cap.
The reimbursement program, which sends state aid back to districts based on the number of students who enroll in charter schools, was underfunded in the fiscal 2014 state budget by $28 million, at a total of $75 million.
The cap on charter school enrollment, under a 2010 education law, is scheduled to rise to 18 percent of total district enrollment by 2017.
According to a bill summary, Peisch's bill (H 3984) authorizes the education commissioner to designate a subset of Level 3 schools as "challenge schools," which include schools that score in the lowest performing 20 percent statewide that are most likely to be designated as underperforming (Level 4). "Challenge schools" would be required to develop two-year turnaround plans, similar to the turnaround plans required for underperforming (Level 4) and chronically underperforming (Level 5) schools.
The bill also maintains the statewide cap on the total number of charter schools that can operate at any given time, which is 72 Commonwealth and 48 Horace Mann charter schools.
The legislation lifts the current spending cap on charter school tuition in the lowest performing 10 percent of districts from 18 percent to 23 percent of net school spending, if the charter meets certain criteria, including an "opt-out" lottery process, or the charter school is specifically designed to serve at-risk student and/or dropouts.
In the "opt-out" lottery process all students would be eligible to attend the charter school under the district's assignment policy without any required application process for the school. Parents of students selected for admission through the opt-out lottery process may choose not to accept the admission offer.
The Race to the Top Coalition thanked Peisch and DeLeo for the House's vote on Wednesday.
"Representative Peisch has put forward a bill that would provide a much-needed expansion of charter seats, opening up opportunities for thousands of students currently trapped on waitlists in Boston and other cities," Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, said in a statement on behalf of the coalition.