Business groups are gearing to support a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the Bay State.
On the side of more charter schools are groups like the Massachusetts High Technology Council and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. Private businesses have also been vocal about supporting the plan, including
Hopkinton-based EMC Corp.
The argument from the business perspective is that more charter schools will produce a stronger workforce, which is critical to feeding the state's economy.
The Massachusetts High Technology Council has made the charter school issue one of its top priorities. In fact, the group is leading an effort to get the issue on a statewide ballot in 2010.
While business groups seem to be firmly on the side of increasing the number of charter schools, local education officials are not. That's because every time a charter school opens in a town, the funding for that town's public education system is impacted.
The current regulations on charter schools, put in place by the Education Reform Act of 1993, include several restrictions including:
• No more than 9 percent of a school district's spending can go to a charter school.
• The number of charter schools in the state is limited to 120.
• A maximum of 4 percent of the state's student population may be enrolled in charter schools.
• The first three charter school approvals every year must be in schools districts with average or below average performance on statewide standardized tests.
The governor's proposal would increase the funding restriction from 9 percent to 18 percent in 30 of the state's lowest performing districts. In Central Massachusetts, the districts in that group include: Southbridge, Worcester, Winchendon, Webster, Fitchburg, Athol-Royalson, North Brookfield and Gardner.
Marc Kenan, executive director of Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association, said that increasing the spending limit for the poorest performing districts will have a direct impact on the number of charter schools.
"If you double the caps in all the major urban areas…the number of schools could easily double, if more," he said.
That prospect has superintendents and public school budget directors shaking in their boots. Each time a student moves from a public school to a charter school, that student takes state funding with him or her. And while that state funding is reimbursed on a sliding scale over three years, it still has an impact on school district budgets.
Teacher's unions are similarly opposed to lifting the charter school cap. Only one charter school in Massachusetts has a teacher's union.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said that any release on the charter school caps must address the problems with funding as well as the fact that charter schools often pull the brightest students out of public school districts. "If you are taking kids out of the district, they should be truly reprentative of the district" in terms of income, race and ability levels, he said.
While Kenen acknowledges that now is a tough time for public school districts, the issue must be dealt with. "We can't wait until the economy turns around to help children that are suffering," he said, adding that while Massachusetts students outperform their counterparts in other states, the achievement gap between the races is widening.
Part of the urgency to the debate is that the Obama administration has promised to make $5 billion in stimulus available to states that raise charter school caps. To be eligible for the funding, Kenen said, the state must act by Dec. 1.
The governor's proposal is slated for a public hearing by the legislature on Sept. 17. In the meantime, the prospect of having the issue of charter schools on a statewide ballot may push the legislature to act before the Dec. 1 deadline.