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Governor and Mayor Change Course on Charters

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino have reversed their position on charter school expansion.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino have recently reversed their positions on charter school expansion. In July, Menino introduced state legislation that would allow officials to transform low-performing schools into in-district charter schools. This represents a significant departure for Menino, who during his 16 years as mayor has consistently expressed the view that charter schools drain funds from traditional schools.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval announces his proposal for increasing the number of charter school seats in the lowest scoring school districts in the state.

Menino’s decision was based on several factors. The first was his desire to promote Massachusetts’ eligibility for federal stimulus dollars from the Race to the Top fund. The second was his frustration with the pace of change in Boston’s schools.

“I’ve heard from many parents, teachers and principals that our school days start too late or end too early and that new, good teachers are reassigned, that innovation is stifled and that in many cases principals’ hands are tied,” Menino said. “I want to help untie those hands and give schools the tools they need to succeed.”

It is no secret that Menino’s relationship with the Boston Teachers Union has been strained in recent years, and many see the mayor’s move as a way to improve the city’s schools without having to get union approval. Although the charter schools created under his proposal would remain under district control, they would operate free from collective bargaining agreements and under performance contracts to encourage innovation among teachers.

A week after Menino introduced his legislation, Gov. Patrick, with Menino and Arne Duncan at his side, unveiled a proposal for lifting the cap on charter school enrollment in the state. This legislation would create 27,000 additional charter school seats in the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts.

The scale of the expansion surprised administrators, who had been given an early preview of a more modest proposal in January. What changed the governor’s mind? The Race to the Top fund is the easy answer, but Patrick says it was the consistently low test scores in some districts that convinced him more drastic action was necessary.

Critics of both proposals contend that any gains achieved through expanding charter schools will come at the expense of traditional schools, which stand to lose funding under the state’s system in which state aid follows the student. “Doubling the amount of money that charter schools can drain from our highest-poverty public school districts will do great harm to our students and our communities—and it will be especially painful during the severe recession we are now experiencing,” said Paul Toner, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.