By Lisa Guisbond, Executive Director of Citizens for Public Schools
A bright spot in an extremely dark election landscape came from Massachusetts voters, who soundly defeated a ballot question to lift restrictions on charter school expansion last week. Question 2 would have allowed 12 new or expanded charters a year, every year, forever, eventually allowing billions of dollars to go from district schools to charters.
The question’s defeat was a victory for public schools and for the power of educating the public about charter schools. The Save Our Public Schools campaign’s message, disseminated by an army of teachers, parents, grandparents and students, proved more compelling than the false narrative carried on a huge wave of out-of-state dark money, the most ever spent on a Massachusetts ballot initiative. The margin of defeat was a decisive 62 to 38 percent.
The yes side, backed by Wall Street, hedge funders and other wealthy backers of “education reform,” spent twice as much as the no side on TV ads. The “No on 2” team, in contrast, invested in building a grass roots movement that made more than 1.5 million voter contacts in doors knocked and phone calls made, as well as many other one-to-one conversations with family, friends and neighbors. All told, the yes side spent almost $26 million to the no side’s $14.5 million.
Massachusetts voters were subjected to an onslaught of confusing and contradictory TV ads. Yes on 2 ads tried to counter No on 2’s central message, that charters were already siphoning hundreds of millions of precious education dollars away from traditional district schools, which educate 96% of the Commonwealth’s students. Their ads claimed that public schools were not being harmed, that charters actually brought more money (the logic being that charters are “public” schools, so the state’s inadequate reimbursement formula added to the overall education funding pie). But anyone connected with an actual public school could see shrinking resources and cuts to things like art, music, science, transportation, and librarians.
I canvassed every weekend from the summer through the fall and saw that the confusion created an opportunity to appeal to voters’ common sense. How could it be possible to create a new, publicly funded, privately managed school system and not take resources away from existing schools? Add to that the fact that a bipartisan state commission concluded we are already underfunding our schools by at least $1 billion a year, and the picture starts to come into focus.
And consider that first 100, then 150 and finally 214 Massachusetts school committees passed resolutions opposing Question 2 and the picture becomes crystal clear. School committee members, after all, are the ones that have to balance district budgets and make the hard choices about what to cut in the face of hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to charters.
From the start, polling data suggested that people with little knowledge of the issue (that is, most Massachusetts voters) were inclined to vote for “choice” and “schools that were getting positive results,” or so the Boston Globe constantly told them. But once we gave them just a few pieces of accurate information, voters moved significantly to our side. That trend remained consistent and built to a crescendo on November 8.
A key piece of the Yes on 2’s false narrative was that poor urban communities were crying out for charters. “Look at the waiting list of 32,000! Think of those tear-stained faces at charter lottery events when students learn they didn’t win a seat!” Our narrative was that people want investment in public education and their community schools, including urban community schools. Even $24 million and a final TV ad featuring Charlie Baker, our very popular Republican governor, weren’t enough to give their story the ring of truth.
The election results confirmed how completely wrong their narrative was, the exact opposite of reality. The question was defeated soundly in every Massachusetts city, across every demographic group. In fact, it succeeded only in some of the more wealthy suburban communities (though not in Governor Baker’s hometown of Swampscott or Winthrop, home to the staunchly pro-charter House Speaker Robert De Leo).
The defeat of Question 2 underscored that Massachusetts voters want the state to invest in public education, not create a separate, privately managed, democratically unaccountable system. Among the important lessons:
- Voters who started with only the vaguest notion of what charters are about learned how they are funded and what kinds of students they include and exclude.
- Education reporters used their critical thinking and started asking good questions about charter school finance, charter waitlists and even what’s behind the “No Excuses” charter philosophy.
- The No on 2 campaign learned just how powerful a coalition of labor and civil rights groups, parents, students, school boards and elected officials could be.
- Students around the state, especially Boston students, found their voices and learned that they had considerable power to educate and influence adults.
- Suburban voters learned directly from Boston public school parents that they in fact are not looking for “choice” but for support for their district schools.
- We all learned what we could do with a strong, focused message, a good ground game and a certain amount of “creative chaos,” as Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni put it.
I’ll give the final word to a Boston student activist who grew into a poised and powerful voice for the campaign. “As young people we aren’t able to vote in elections, this was especially hard this election when it’s our futures written on the ballot,” said Gabi Pereira, a current Boston Public School student. “Schools like mine across Massachusetts are losing too much to charter schools. So thank you all for hearing us for, supporting us and voting on behalf of us.”
The looming question now is how to take our winning coalition and use its power to support adequate funding for our community schools and other important education and social justice battles going forward.