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Baker calls for lifting caps on charter schools, calls 37K waiting list 'disgrace'


BOSTON — The long waiting list of families seeking to enroll their children in charter schools in Massachusetts is a "disgrace," Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday, reiterating his support for a lifting of the current limits on charter school expansion.

Baker spoke during a Statehouse rally organized by a coalition that said it was launching a signature drive to put a question before voters on next year's state ballot. The proposal would allow the state's education board to authorize up to 12 new charters or expansions of existing schools each year, with preference given to the state's lowest performing school districts.

The Republican governor has long been a vocal supporter of charter schools, which are public schools that operate independently from local school districts. About 80 currently operate in Massachusetts.

"The fact that we have 37,000 kids on a waiting list to get into a school of their dreams here in the commonwealth is a disgrace," Baker said. "We have a great opportunity to do something about that."

He stopped short, however, of an outright endorsement of the proposed ballot question. He has promised to file a charter school expansion bill with the hope that the Legislature might act before the issue reached voters.

"My view on this is really simple. I don't really care how the cap gets lifted, I just want the cap to be lifted," he said.

Lawmakers have struggled to find consensus. A measure that called for gradually increasing the cap in Boston and other struggling school districts passed the House last year but failed in the Senate.

Critics, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, contend charters drain already scarce financial resources from traditional public schools while failing to adequately serve students with special needs.

Ballot question supporters have until Nov. 18 to collect the signatures of more than 64,000 registered voters to keep alive their hopes of getting on the November 2016 ballot.

Also Tuesday, supporters of one of several proposals to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Massachusetts announced they had begun collecting signatures to put their initiative on the ballot.

Members of the organization Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol gathered outside the Statehouse to tout the backing of several lawmakers, including Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, the Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey are among state officials who oppose legalization.

The proposed ballot question calls for regulating the sale of marijuana, including a 3.75 percent excise tax on retail sales of the drug.

A second group has filed three versions of a proposed ballot question that would also legalize recreational pot use, but with less state government oversight.

"We honestly think that the voters of Massachusetts are much more interested in a regulated system like the one in Colorado than a less regulated system like the other folks have proposed," said Will Luzier, campaign manager for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Colorado and three other U.S. states have recreational marijuana laws.

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