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Senate rejects bill calling for charter school expansion in low-performing districts

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BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate rejected a bill Wednesday that would have allowed for an expansion of charter schools in Boston and other urban communities.

The House-passed measure was defeated by a 30-9 margin after senators also voted down, by a 26-13 margin, a proposal by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz that called for linking caps on charter school growth to reimbursements the state provides school districts for costs incurred when students leave traditional schools for charter schools.

The votes likely spell the end of efforts to pass legislation in the current session, which ends July 31.

"The charter model is working, and it should be allowed to expand," said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, in a statement following the vote.

"Instead, the Senate has ensured that the high quality educational opportunities offered by charters will be frozen in place," Kenen said.

While supporters of charters, public schools which operate independently from local school districts, praise them as laboratories for educational innovation, critics say they drain financial resources from conventional public schools and often provide fewer opportunities for special education students.

The bill approved by the House in May called for gradually increasing the existing cap on charter school spending in underperforming school districts. The cap, already slated to rise from 15 percent to 18 percent by 2018, would have grown an additional 1 percent per year under the bill until it reached 23 percent by 2022.

A 2010 law requires the state to reimburse school districts 100 percent of per-pupil costs in the first year after a student moves from a conventional public school to a charter school, and 25 percent in each of the following five years. While the state met its reimbursement obligations in the last fiscal year, it has fallen short in other years.

Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, sought to make the annual increase in charter school spending dependent on the state fully funding the reimbursements. She argued her proposal would be an effective middle ground.

"Can we write laws that anticipate funding pressures of the future and not pit the child in the district schools against her brother, or her neighbor, in the charter school? Yes, we can," said Chang-Diaz.

But the amendment ran into opposition from charter school advocates who said the funding requirement would create uncertainty among the schools as they considered whether to build new facilities or expand existing ones.

Some senators also doubted that charter schools would do enough to bridge the student achievement gap in low-income districts.

"This is not the time. We do not have consensus on how to move forward," said Somerville Democratic Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

Teachers unions who opposed lifting the charter school cap applauded the Senate action.

"The vote against raising the cap keeps resources in our locally controlled public schools where they are most needed,"said Thomas Gosnell, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

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