- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - Charter schools advocates urged lawmakers to advance a measure that would allow for an expansion of the schools in low-income urban districts.

The push on Wednesday by a coalition of groups came one week before a deadline for legislative committees to act on bills currently before them, and on the same day that a lottery was being held for the more than 13,600 Boston children who are seeking spots in charter schools. Only about 2,200 will be selected.

The bill would remove caps on the number of students that can attend charter schools in Boston and other urban districts.

Supporters argue the caps limit educational opportunities by restricting the ability of new charter schools to open or current ones to expand, while critics say the public schools that operate independently of local districts drain financial resources from traditional schools.

“Why put a cap on success?” asked Paul Grogan, president of the business-backed Boston Foundation. “I’ve never had a good answer to that question.”

Dr. Sonia Pope, executive director of the Holyoke Community Charter School which serves predominantly Latino students from low-income backgrounds, said her students consistently score higher on standardized tests.

In 2013, Pope said, eighth-graders at HCCC scored 42 percent higher on the English language MCAS exam than Latino students in other Holyoke schools and 21 percent higher than their statewide counterparts. The numbers were similarly higher for Latino students at HCCC on the math MCAS exam, she said.

Boston’s six charter high schools ranked among the top 10 in the city in standardized test scores, according to the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association.

Those wary of lifting the cap say charter schools lack oversight, serve disproportionately fewer special needs students and divert financial resources from public schools.

“I acknowledge that some charter schools are doing some pretty good work, but some aren’t doing better and are doing worse that our regular district schools,” said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The Boston Teachers Union says charter schools drain about $65 million in annual revenue from city schools.

The bill’s supporters dispute those figures, arguing it costs less for the district to send a student to a charter school than to educate one in a traditional school.

“As families, we have the right to choose,” said Monalisa Smith, head of Boston-based Mothers for Justice and Equality. “We should not have to decide on whether or not an opportunity or resource that is performing well in our community expands. That should be a no-brainer.”

Smith, whose group was formed by families that lost children to urban violence, said successful charter schools provide competition that can serve to improve other public schools.

The Education Committee held a hearing on the bill last May but the panel has yet to release a new draft of the measure to be voted on by the full Legislature.

“We are working hard to get to ‘yes’ on a bill that both creates room for good charter operators to expand and does not take tools out of the toolbox for districts that are showing promise,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, Senate chairman of the panel.

Another key provision of the bill would give state education officials more flexibility to intervene in underperforming public schools. Schools are now ranked on a scale from 1 to 5, with schools at Level 4 and Level 5 eligible for intervention from the state. The bill would allow the state to take action to shore up Level 3 schools that are in danger of slipping to the lower rungs.

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