01.29.2004 5:23 P.M.
Charter school movement at crossroads
Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) - The charter school movement, launched 10 years ago to give parents the choice of moving their kids into publicly funded, privately run schools, is at a crossroads in Massachusetts as the state considers expansion.

Crowds were overflowing at hearings on proposed charter schools in Cambridge, Marlboro, Lynn, and Springfield. In Marlboro, a World War II veteran testified against a math academy charter school proposed by an Eastern European scientist, saying he doesn't want kids "educated like Germans."

Charter proponents say children are being used as pawns by school officials who send anti-charter fliers home to parents. Supporters of the traditional system fire back, saying charters siphon off the easier-to-educate kids by enrolling fewer children of special needs, of low-income families, and those who aren't fluent in English.

"It's become a tremendous public debate," state Education Commissioner David Driscoll said. "This has become a very volatile public issue."

The state can't afford to reimburse districts the way it used to, meaning cuts are likely in communities where charters open because state and local education dollars follow those pupils out the public school doors.

State aid to school districts hardest-hit by charters has shrunk by two-thirds to just $13 million statewide; Boston alone lost $40 million in funding to charter schools. In Framingham, a school closing was blamed on budget cuts resulting from the loss of aid to a competing charter school.

Gov. Mitt Romney is further fueling the debate, calling for expanding charters by eliminating all caps. Existing law prevents charters from taking more than 9 percent of a district's net school spending, and education officials say 152 districts - about half the state - are at or near that cap.

Another cap prevents more than 4 percent of the state's students from attending charter schools, and the law limits total charters to 120. There are currently 50 statewide.

The Republican governor's proposal, all of which needs legislative approval, would also allow "charter management organizations" to hold multiple charters.

"There is a possibility of creating a parallel state system of privately run, publicly funded schools," said Paul Schlichtman, head of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "It could literally kill off your local neighborhood school."

Just four of 50 charter schools statewide had students with "limited English proficiency" or "LEP," according to 2002-03 enrollment figures the schools reported to the state. Boston's 17 charter schools reported that none of their students were "LEP," compared to nearly a quarter of students in the Boston Public Schools.

"If you're happy with the school your child is in, you're not going to look for an alternative," said Roger Harris, headmaster at the Boston Renaissance Charter School, the largest charter in the state with 1,400 students and an even longer waiting list. "One of the good things happening in Boston Public Schools is the bilingual programs, and special education programs."

State education officials say charters conduct proper outreach. State law requires schools give the public "reasonable notice" of open enrollment, and hold a lottery if it receives more applications than there are seats.

At Sabis International in Springfield, 41 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch - a school measure of poverty - compared to 71 percent in Springfield Public Schools, according to state figures. Of Sabis' 1,300 students, 7 percent are categorized as special needs, compared to 20 percent in the city schools.

"There's not too much I can do about it," Sabis principal Maretta H. Thomsen said. "There's no selection process. We put information all over every area of the city. We do everything in English and Spanish."

Two Lawrence charter schools - Family Development, and Community Day - most closely reflect their district, state figures show. Both match or exceed the district's percentages of low-income kids, 69 percent, and special needs, 14 percent.

Both Lawrence schools conduct foreign language advertising, but other schools, including Renaissance, don't. Harris says Renaissance doesn't need to because it's well-known.

"How's the (non-native speaking) parent going to know about this and enroll if you're not doing outreach in multiple languages?" Schlichtman said.

Alan Safran, principal of the Media and Technology charter high school in Boston, says the Boston Public Schools won't give him its list of eighth-graders.

"If we had that list, we would mail a letter to the home, in the language of the family," said Safran, whose school nearly reflects city schools in special needs and low-income percentages.

State Board of Education Chairman James Peyser, who recently took a job with a national charter school group, said charter schools reflect their neighborhoods, not entire districts, which would explain why South Boston Harbor Academy is 83 percent white, while city schools are largely minority.

Driscoll said the "emotional atmosphere" won't influence his recommendations next month on the seven proposed charters.

"That should not and in my case does not change the fact that we have to make decisions based on what is right for kids," he said.