Thursday, March 31, 2016
Senate bill would unify Boston’s district, charter school enrollment

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s controversial proposal to allow Boston students to simultaneously apply to charter and district schools would become a done deal under a new charter school bill proposed in the state Senate.

The bill, being announced at the State House on Thursday morning, is largely focused on addressing the push to lift the Commonwealth’s cap on the allowed number of charter schools.

But it includes a provision that would require charter schools to enter into either unified enrollment systems or opt-out lotteries with local districts, unless those schools serve special populations, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said Tuesday.

In an opt-out lottery, all students would be automatically entered and parents would decide whether to accept a charter school seat if offered one, said Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat.

“Instead of opting into the lottery, everyone is automatically dumped into the lottery bucket,” she said before the bill was unveiled. “If you get a spot, you may choose to decline it, rather than having to proactively go in.”

Senator Daniel A. Wolf said the state was required to make publicly funded, independently run charter schools readily accessible to interested families.

“It’s public money,” said Wolf, a Democrat who represents the Cape and Islands. “We have an obligation, if there’s going to be a charter school in a district, to allow access to that charter school for all the students in the district. ... So if it costs a little more for a district to do it, or if it’s complicated, I think that’s legitimate expense.”

Walsh’s proposal to unify enrollment of all publicly funded schools in Boston provoked a firestorm last fall, as some parents expressed concern that it could lead to charter expansion and the closure of district schools.

The issue had seemed dormant in recent months, though, as officials sought to build support through low-key meetings with community groups following a public backlash at a series of forums and on social media.

Chang-Diaz described the unified enrollment measure as an “exciting and innovative” aspect of the Senate’s charter school bill, saying it would press charter schools to serve populations more similar to those of district schools.

Such a change would address assertions by charter school foes that the schools cherry-pick students to ensure good behavior and academic success.

Chang-Diaz said some parents of children with special needs would likely opt their children out of seats at charter schools that lack programs for high-needs students.

But charter schools would be required to provide resources for all students, she said, and would increase their special education programs over time to approach parity with offerings in district schools.

A computer-driven lottery system would save time and money for schools, she said.

“Many charters are going through a very laborious and expensive process of recruitment and direct mailings to the list of potential enrollees from their catchment area districts in order to improve their enrollment numbers, to make them more representative of the populations that they ought to be educating,” Chang-Diaz said.

Districts that do not already assign students by lottery — which constitute most of the state’s school systems — would not be required to offer combined enrollment programs, Chang-Diaz said.

The bill will also require the state to refuse to renew charter schools with substantially higher student attrition rates than local districts, and to put on probation charter schools that have out-of-school suspension rates higher than local districts.

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