EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

March 25, 2014

Advocates want charter-school cap lifted

BOSTON — Thousands of students applied for seats in Massachusetts’ public charter schools last year only to be turned away because of a state-mandated cap on enrollment.

This year, more than 750 students applied for 170 openings at the Community Day Charter School in Lawrence, one of two state-funded charter schools in the city. Executive Director Sheila Balboni said the school currently doesn’t have plans to expand, but the demand from parents proves there is a desperate need for another charter school in the city.

“There should be more opportunities for other charters to develop, so the families on our waiting list have an option,” she said. “We need to do something to meet the demand.”

Community Day currently has about 330 students and the Lawrence Family Development Charter School has more than 600 students, according to state figures.

Charter school advocates want the cap lifted, arguing that the taxpayer funded schools in most cases perform better than expected and deserve to grow. They’re backing legislation on Beacon Hill that would gradually ease the limits on how many students can enter charters and allow new schools to be built to accommodate the demand.

Opponents say the taxpayer-funded schools siphon limited education funds and cherry-pick the best students from regular district schools, many of which struggle academically. They want the state to focus more on improving regular public schools.

“We should stop trying to create a parallel public school system and focus more attention on the system that educates 95 percent of our kids,” said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which opposes lifting the cap. “These schools are drawing more and more state resources away from the districts and students that need it most.”

Statewide nearly 35,000 students attend 80 state-funded charter schools, according to the state Department of Education, with more than 40,000 on waiting lists. The state-imposed cap depends on the health of a public school district but prohibits the most troubled districts from spending more than 18 percent of their budget on charter students.

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