The state this year has seen a surge in applications for new charter schools, most targeted for the neediest urban districts, following the passage of legislation last winter that loosened longstanding limitations on their expansion.
By the Aug. 2 deadline, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had received 42 applications, the most in more than a decade, and three times as many as last year, when it received 14.
Twenty of the schools are targeted for Boston and eight for Springfield, both cities where low-income families have long clamored for better educational options.
Proponents of charter schools laud them for their freedom to deviate from union and district requirements and embrace innovative teaching.
“We challenged the charter school community to help us meet the needs of students stuck in the achievement gap, and they have responded with a record level of interest,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in a prepared statement.
“I look forward to working with the best charter operators and the best in-district innovators to raise the level of performance of all our kids.’’
Opponents of charter schools, which include many school districts, say they worry that an increasing number of such schools will drain vital dollars away from traditional public schools and create a divided system in which select students attend charter schools and students with special needs fill the traditional schools.
“If this is not done carefully, it will have a very negative impact on the state,’’ said Ed Doherty, assistant president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “We worry that we’re creating a system for the haves and have-nots. . . . The other [concern] is they basically drain money from traditional public schools.’’
Students who leave a public school district to attend a charter school — an independent public school that operates free of district oversight — take with them a slice of state aid that would have gone to the local district. This can amount to as much as $15,000 per student.
This academic year, there will be 63 charter schools in the state, or about 3.5 percent of the 1,831 public schools in Massachusetts.
Patrick and state lawmakers pushed through legislation earlier this year that doubled the number of charter school seats in districts with low MCAS scores as part of an effort to compete for $4.3 billion in federal dollars made available by President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which has sought to prod states to overhaul their public schools.
The spike in proposals represents the highest number of applications the state has received since 1997, when it lifted the cap that districts could spend on charter schools to 9 percent of their budgets. The law passed in January allows underperforming districts to increase their spending on charter schools to 12 percent of their budgets this academic year and then by 1 percent each year, until 2016, when they would reach the limit of 18 percent.
Some supporters of charter schools argue that the Patrick administration hasn’t moved quickly enough to boost the number of these institutions, noting that about 26,000 children are now on waiting lists, as many as are enrolled in such schools.
They add that the state has only approved the opening of six charter schools in the past four years.
“How could this be a success for this governor?’’ said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker. “We want to see a charter school process devoid of politics, and we want to see access increase to address the increasing demand.’’
Patrick once resisted lifting a cap on charter schools but last year submitted legislation calling for their expansion and aggressively lobbied for its passage.
Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Education, said the administration has proved its commitment to increasing charter schools with the new legislation and noted that the paucity of new schools reflects how most districts, especially those in big cities, had already reached their budget limits.
“Schools couldn’t open there because there was no room to do so,’’ he said. “We proposed lifting the cap to meet the growing demand. . . . It’s worth noting that the previous administrations all tried unsuccessfully to raise the charter school cap, while we were able to double it in the districts where student need is greatest.’’
He added: “We don’t want to open schools for the sake of opening schools; we want to see high-quality schools opened.’’
The applications the state received this month are the start of a six-month process.
Over the next month, school officials will vet the proposals and winnow the number of applicants. Those with the most appealing plans will be invited to make more lengthy proposals.
State education officials will review the final applications, seek public comment, and award new charters in February. Last year, the state reduced its 14 proposals for charter schools to seven. Only one was approved.
The directors of charter schools said they hope the odds will improve this year.
Rebecca Cass, executive director of Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston, which opened in 2003 and now has 210 junior high school students, has sought to build four new charter schools, one in Chelsea and three in Boston.
“We hope the new law allows us to meet the demand,’’ she said.
Alan Safran, executive director of the MATCH school, which runs a high school in Kenmore Square and a middle school in Jamaica Plain, has proposed a new school in Boston for 700 nonnative English-speaking students.
“We see ourselves as working with the Boston public schools, not against them,’’ he said.
“This should be a cooperative effort. We want to learn from their work, and we want them to learn from our work.’’
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.