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Senate Finance OKs Retooled Charter Authorizer Proposal

After weeks of postponements and concerns from both sides of the aisle, the state Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee voted Wednesday to substantially overhaul a contentious charter school bill.

The original plan laid out in Senate Bill 830, carried by Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, would have created a stand-alone, state-appointed board with the power to overrule local school systems who denied applications to open new charter schools. But after members of the Finance Committee raised questions about the roughly $240,000 price tag for the new board and the increased bureaucracy it would create, Gresham, with the help of committee member and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, introduced an amendment that would move the charter authorizer function under the state Board of Education.

The changes to the measure proved to be enough to sway all but one of the GOP committee members.

But Democrats, along with Maryville Republican Doug Overbey still didn’t lend their support. Outstanding concerns included the bill’s limited focus on counties that have struggling, “priority schools,” and the lack of any rules to make sure that new charter schools would be located in underserved neighborhoods and not more distant, well off communities.

While Gresham ultimately managed to prevail and push the changes through, she was less than cheerful, heatedly telling reporters after the vote that the concerns raised by opponents during the hour-plus of discussion on the bill were outmoded.

“I think what you heard a lot of was people talking about a system of education that is an old way of looking at things. We have to be, at all times, focused on children… We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults,” Gresham said. She added that, while not perfect, the amended legislation is “a way to get there, it’s another tool to get there and we are going to get there…as long as you focus on children and not yourself.”

The House was scheduled to vote on their version of the bill earlier in the day, Wednesday, but they put it off, presumably to see how the Senate committee acted. Given the lack of opposition the legislation has seen so far in the lower chamber and the blessing of high ranking Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, it appears likely that the GOP supermajority probably has the votes to bat the bill home.

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