Charter backers get schooled
Funding questions sank ballot question. But what now for struggling schools?
NEARLY A YEAR AGO, charter school proponents threatened to force a statewide debate on education issues by mounting a ballot campaign lift the cap on charters schools.
Be careful what you wish for.
It turned out teachers unions, school leaders, and municipal officials across the state were eager to have that conversation. When the contentious and costly ballot campaign was over last week, the charter proposal was steamrolled by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.
Charter advocates wanted to advance a social justice message by emphasizing the impressive results being achieved by the independently run, but publicly funded, schools, which they say are providing a lifeline for thousands of poor and minority students otherwise stuck in low-performing district schools. Their first television ad argued that charter expansion — the ballot question would have allowed up to 12 new charters each year beyond existing state caps — would mean a funding boost for all schools. It was an oblique reference to reimbursement payments to districts designed to ease the transition when students — and their tuition dollars — leave for charters.
Instead of deflecting potential concerns, it aggravated them, opening a festering sore about funding for district schools, which local officials say are straining to make do under an outdated state financing formula that has not kept pace with spiraling costs.
“I think they miscalculated the support for charters and I also think they underestimated the concerns that many cities and towns have with the current system,” said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. “The proposal brought to the surface a lot of the concerns that many of us have been talking about for many years.”
It was only downhill from there for the Question 2 campaign.
Proponents’ early confidence was misguided, but somewhat understandable: Polls have long shown general support for charter schools in Massachusetts. But embrace of a broad idea is very different from approval of a specific proposal. That proved to be especially true for the charter question, which was complicated and hard to understand, yet touched on an issue that is a core concern in every community in the state.
“Ballot questions are not designed for complex, nuanced education policy,” said Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which spearheaded passage by the Legislature of the state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. “They’re designed for yes or no. Do you want a five-cent bottle deposit or not?
Public dollars follow students to whatever school they attend, whether it’s a charter or a district school. Charter schools receive funding exactly in line with their share of the state’s public school population. What’s more, proponents maintained that the cap lift would only lead to charter growth in nine urban districts that were at or near the cap. But opponents said charters were already hurting districts, which have to adjust their budgets when students leave for charters, and argued that allowing annual charter growth indefinitely through the ballot question would only make that worse.
Great Schools Massachusetts, the pro-charter campaign, declined to discuss the election result. “We had a much tougher message task, and one that proved more difficult than expected,” Will Keyser, a strategist for the campaign, said in a statement. “We had to convince voters of the value of charter expansion while [the other side] simply needed to falsely position charters as the root cause of local school funding issues.”
Campaign spending shattered records for any previous ballot question in the state, with more than $40 million poured into ads, mailings, and staff. Proponents enjoyed a slight spending advantage, but that came nowhere close to making up for the ground game opponents assembled.
Teachers unions, led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, funded most of the opposition, and the MTA’s 110,000 members were a ready-made statewide field organization ready for battle. But the “No on 2” campaign grew into a far broader coalition. More than 200 school committees voted to oppose the question, and municipal officials, parents, and students were drawn to the effort. In the end, the campaign says they spoke directly with more than 250,000 voters through either phone canvassing or door-knocking.
“We had no shortage of spokespeople,” said Lynda Tocci, the veteran Democratic strategist who directed the campaign. “Sometimes you have to create a narrative and juice up energy. We didn’t have to do that.”
Education reform issues have long defied easy political pigeonholing on the left-right spectrum, generating particularly passionate debate among Democrats.
National leaders, starting with President Obama and his education secretary, John King, who founded a Boston charter school, have embraced charters as part of the school reform solution for underserved populations. But other Democrats and teachers unions, a powerful constituency within the party, have railed against charters, which operate free of many district constraints and usually have non-unionized teachers.
In the Massachusetts debate, charter proponents were hamstrung by a lack of high-profile Democratic backers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has written passionately about the need to break the ironclad link between educational opportunity and zip code and advocated a voucher system that would allow open access to all public schools in a region, hemmed and hawed for weeks before issuing a statement against the ballot question. At one early rally on Boston Common featuring Question 2’s biggest booster, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, the only Democrat on the stage was state Sen. Michael Rodrigues.
Charter schools “had not been a partisan issue in the polls we had been doing for a period going back a number of years,” said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group. By October, however, polling was showing a clear partisan divide, with Democrats opposing the measure 2-to-1. “Near the end, some of the partisan difference began to be erased because everyone was voting against it,” said Koczela.
Fewer than two dozen of the state’s 351 cities and towns supported the ballot measure, and it was defeated in every larger city, the places where charter attendance is greatest and where proponents expected support to be strongest.
The evidence is overwhelming that Boston charter students are significantly outperforming demographically identical counterparts in the city’s district schools. Rigorously-conducted research studies have shown that Boston is, in fact, home to the highest performing charter school sector in the country.
With some 30,000 students on charter school waiting lists statewide, 10,000 of them in Boston, Baker made one last pitch at a Roxbury rally the night before the election, framing the ballot question as a battle on behalf of low-income families’ “desire and desperation for something better.”
“If you’re thinking about the political calculus in this one, you’re not thinking the right way,” Baker said after addressing the rally. “This is about trying to give a whole bunch of parents just like me and just like many other parents in Massachusetts a chance to do the most important thing we care about as a parent, which is get your kids a great education.”
Of course, once Baker and charter school backers decided to take the question to the ballot, an effective political calculus was the only way to make good on that effort on behalf of parents.
Question 2 opponents insisted that the the focus should be on fixing what ails district schools rather than creating a parallel system that some students can escape to. But what would that fix entail?
With the charter-expansion question a settled issue, at least for now, leaders of the No on 2 campaign say they want the education debate to turn to funding of schools statewide.
It was a year ago this month that a state commission issued a report on the school finances. The Foundation Budget Review Commission said two decades of soaring costs for health care and special education services meant the state formula for aid to districts was underfunding schools by at least $1 billion a year.
“We’re going to work to fully fund the foundation budget – that’s our priority,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “That’s what this is about now.”
But if the charter school fight proved to be too narrow a focus to win broad support, so too might an effort focused solely on more money for schools.
“If the solution that gets presented by the mainstream status quo system is to give us more money and we’ll be fine, I don’t think that’s going to be a winning argument,” said Paul Reville, the former state secretary of education.
He said we need to rethink everything about how schools operate, particularly those educating students that are lagging far behind their better-off peers — the same students charter proponents said were desperately in need of better schools. Reville said that means an emphasis on early childhood education and deeper connections between schools and careers.
But he said it also means looking within district systems to give leaders more flexibility over how the school day is structured and giving schools and teachers greater autonomy — as well as accountability for delivering results.
Innovation Schools, which were authorized by a 2010 education reform law, are a step in this direction, as is a special “empowerment zone” authorized recently to try to improve a set of long-struggling middle schools in Springfield.
One of the great myths of the anti-charter campaign has been that charters have failed to demonstrate innovation that can be replicated more broadly. The sorts of reforms Reville is talking about — school-based autonomy and accountability for delivering results when given that sort of freedom — are in many ways exactly the features of charter schools that researchers say are responsible for the success they have demonstrated in raising student achievement levels among low-income students.
“I would push that back on unions,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “You’ve been successful at defeating outside competition. What about deeper responsibility, more autonomy, and being responsible for results within district systems?”Liam Kerr, head of the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, which strongly backed the ballot question, said Democrats have long advocated for both increased education funding and policy reforms. That started with the state’s landmark 1993 education reform law, coauthored by two Democratic legislators, which brought a huge infusion of new funding for poorer districts along with a host of reforms, including the introduction of charter schools.
“The history of Democratic-led education reform was, yes, we know we need to make changes, but we also know changes can cost money,” Kerr said. “I think we can all clearly agree the charter-only discussion took up too much oxygen in the last couple of years. We are excited to see the achievement-gap-closing ideas of the people who opposed the ballot question.”