October 13, 2016 12:30 pm

Massachusetts Charter Expansion Ballot Question Pits Dark Money Against People Power

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By Lisa Guisbond, Executive Director, Citizens for Public Schools

When they head to the polls on November 8, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to embrace unfettered charter school expansion or vote no on ballot question 2. Opponents and supporters are embroiled in a high-stakes battle that will demonstrate whether tens of millions of dollars, much of it dark money from outside Massachusetts, can vanquish a grass roots army of students, parents and teachers knocking on doors, making phone calls, planting lawn signs and writing letters to their community newspapers.

screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-12-03-31-pmMy organization, Citizens for Public Schools, is part of a broad-based coalition, Save our Public Schools Massachusetts (SOPS), fighting Question 2. SOPS includes the two major teachers unions and many other labor groups, the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, a number of progressive political organizations, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, among many others. A spontaneous movement among elected school committees has resulted in more than 145 passing No on 2 resolutions (meanwhile, there have been zero yes on 2 resolutions to date). On the other side, are Republican Governor Charlie Baker, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald editorial boards, Democrats for Education Reform and a number of Astro Turf groups that have sprung up to push the question to victory, awash in out-of-state and dark money.

At this point, the Yes on 2 folks are outspending us by two to one, with more than $20 million to spend on TV advertising, an unprecedented amount for a Massachusetts ballot campaign. However, polling data and our experiences talking to voters confirm that when people hear both sides of the argument, they move dramatically toward the no side. This holds true for every demographic group in the state.

What would Question 2 do? It would lift current restrictions on charter school growth statewide, allowing 12 new charter schools to open or expand every year, ad infinitum, thereby undermining the public schools that educate the vast majority of our students. (Traditional public schools still educate 96% of Massachusetts students.)

If passed, we could see triple the number of charters statewide within 10 years. This year, traditional public schools are losing more than $450 million to charter schools, meaning cuts to arts, science, librarians, bus service and early childhood education. In 10 years, that total would rise to more than $1.5 billion lost per year. That would come on top of the fact that our public schools are already underfunded to the tune of $1 billion per year, according to a bipartisan state commission report released this year.

Despite the evidence, Question 2 proponents tout a study by the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation (funded by the pro-charter Boston Foundation), which found a way to crunch the numbers to show that local districts are not harmed by charter expansion. School committee members, faced with lost resources and difficult choices every day, are not buying it, and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s own data contradicts the MTF report.

Besides the lost funding, another reason school committees are clamoring to pass No on 2 resolutions is that Massachusetts charter schools are not accountable to local communities. The state often approves them over the opposition of local parents and taxpayers, as happened recently in Brockton, where the public high school has been recognized for its improvement on the front page of the New York Times and internationally.

The NAACP and Black Live Matter oppose Question 2 because they see that charter schools create a separate and unequal, two-track system. Massachusetts charters typically underserve English language learners and special needs students, leaving public schools with fewer resources to educate a higher-need population. 

Where you stand is not necessarily a matter of whether you are for or against charter schools in general. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a charter supporter, opposes Question 2, stating that it would “wreak havoc” on the finances of the Boston Public Schools.  He recognizes that it goes too far.

The Boston City Council overwhelmingly passed a strongly worded resolution against Question 2, noting that it would lead to “a loss of funding that undermines the ability of districts to provide all students with the education services to which they are constitutionally entitled.”

Our opponents have more than $20 million and a shelf full of studies funded by pro-charter foundations with very deep pockets.


Graphic created by Save Our Public Schools Massachusetts (click for more information)

What’s working for us? We have a well-oiled ground game, with many actual grass roots volunteers. We have progressive standard-bearer Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Ed Markey. We have most of our Congressional delegation. We have Attorney General Maura Healey, and the state Democratic Committee, all of which is tremendously irksome to “Democrats for Education Reform,” who continue to push the idea that charters should be a no-brainer for progressive Democrats.

As I said, when people hear the messages of both sides, they come over to the No on 2 side. A recent example was a debate held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It featured the head of the state charter school organization, Marc Kenen, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson representing the no side, and a parent on each side. Harvard did some instant polling of the overflow crowd at the beginning and end of the debate. What started as a tight race ended with dramatic movement to the no side, with 66% supporting No on Question 2. (Before hearing the debate, it was 40% no.)

So stay tuned for what promises to be a fascinating and hard-fought battle to see if people power can overcome dark money and false advertising. I’m betting on the people.