Mass. Plan To Triple Number of Charter Schools Scrutinized

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Politically charged assertions in Massachusetts over the track records of the state's charter schools, the oldest of which are in their second year, have prompted state lawmakers to take a long, hard, and detailed look at the Republican governor's proposal to triple the number and size of the schools.

"We're looking at all aspects of charter schools before we move forward to expand this alternative system," said Dwight Robson, an education adviser to Rep. Harold M. Lane Jr., who serves as co-chairman of the legislature's joint education committee. "Representative Lane is not anti-charter, but he's got a number of concerns."

Sylvia Smith, an education adviser for the Senate co-chairman of the panel, Robert A. Antonioni, said the senator is in the "listening and learning" stages on the issue and expects the committee to have something on the table this summer. Mr. Antonioni, like Mr. Lane, is a Democrat.

The state's charter school program was created as part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which earmarked $800 million for public schools, put forth a plan for higher standards and assessments, and moved to equalize school funding over seven years.

The Bay State's first charter schools opened in the fall of 1995. Today, there are 22 charter schools up and running across the state and three others in the works.

Gov. William F. Weld declared the schools "a roaring success" in his January State of the State Address before urging legislators to lift the cap on their number. His proposal would lift the cap from 25 schools serving 6,500 students to 75 schools serving 90,000.

The plan also has the support of Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci and state school board Chairman John R. Silber, a Weld appointee.

The charter concept is intended to allow teachers and other organizers to run the publicly funded schools free from most of the administrative and political constraints other public schools face.

Too Soon To Assess

Lawmakers have heard loud cries of protest from teachers' unions and other critics in recent weeks, who contend that expanding the charters is a first step by Governor Weld and the school board in privatizing the state's public school system. Massachusetts is one of only a few states that allow private, for-profit companies to run charter schools. (See "EAI Seeks To Team With Developers To Build Charter Schools in Arizona," in This Week's News.)

And others say that it's simply too soon to assess the success of the schools and their long-term financial impact on public schools.

"Before acting, lawmakers should find out how the charters are really doing ... and how the law's reforms are actually affecting the mainstream schools," Jack Rennie, the chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, wrote in a recent opinion piece for The Boston Globe. "Neither of these questions can be fairly answered now."

Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the financial burden of charter schools is already pinching school districts that house them.

Because tax dollars follow students into charter schools, regular schools "are not getting the money they are entitled to" and need to successfully implement reforms, he said.

But Kevin Dwyer, a former Boston public school teacher and now the executive director of the Boston-based lobbying group Citizens United to Raise the Cap, said that the more than 3,600 children vying for a spot in a charter school are proof of their success.

"For years, we've been hearing lots of good ideas for schools that never amount to anything," he said. With charters, he argued, the demand and enthusiasm of parents and students "tell us that these schools are working right now. It's something tangible and immediate."

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