Suburbs and the charter school question 

They may determine the outcome, but most not affected by the ballot measure

HINGHAM DOES NOT look much like the sort of place where a charter school is likely to pop up.

While charters schools in Massachusetts are concentrated in lower-income urban communities with struggling district schools and large minority populations, the wealthy South Shore suburb has a median home price of nearly $800,000 and a highly-regarded district school system, with a student population that is 92 percent white and just 2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.

Yet the Hingham school committee is one of more than 200 across the state to take a vote to oppose Question 2, the ballot question that would allow up to 12 new charter schools or expansion of existing charters per year beyond existing state caps. Joining them are 32 mayors who have also taken a stand against charter expansion.

The groundswell of opposition among suburban school and municipal officials has combined with the organizing muscle and money of teachers unions, the measure’s fiercest opponents, to form a potent statewide base for the anti-charter campaign, which has opened up a significant lead in some, though not all, recent polls.

In most of these communities, however, voters are preparing to weigh in on something that would have little or no effect on their own schools.

The ballot question would most immediately impact nine larger cities that are at or close to their cap on charter school growth, including Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. That’s where there is interest in new charters – based on charter waiting lists and on charter growth over more than 20 years – and those are the places that could add new charter seats if voters raise the charter cap.

A charter school could be approved in Hingham, where no charter school has ever been opened, regardless of the ballot question outcome.

Under the state’s system for funding schools, public dollars follow students into whatever type of school they attend. Districts reimburse charter schools for the cost of educating students from those communities who attend charters, which are publicly-funded, but independently run and enjoy more flexibility than district systems over hiring, curriculum, and the length of the school day and year. Current state law allows no more than 9 percent of a district’s net school spending to go to charters. Legislation approved in 2010 doubled that to 18 percent in the lowest performing 10 percent of all school districts.

Most communities, including Hingham and other well-off suburbs like Newton, are nowhere near the 9 percent cap.

In Hingham, just five to 10 students are typically enrolled in an out-of-town charter school in any given school year, and only 0.28 percent of the town’s 2016 school spending went to charters.

In Newton, just five students out of more than 12,000 attend charter schools, with 0.05 percent of the city’s $211 million school budget, or less than $100,000, sent to charter schools. Newton’s school committee, including Mayor Setti Warren, who is a member of the board, voted to oppose the charter question.

Question 2 would have no effect on charter growth in Hingham or Newton because a charter school could be approved now in these and most other communities in the state, and that will still be the case even if the ballot question is defeated.  But neither Hingham nor Newton has had a charter school in the 21 years since the first Massachusetts charter school opened, and there no reason to think there will be any sudden interest in opening a school in these communities.

“The notion that people in suburbs like Wellesley and Brookline and Lexington and Winchester are somehow going to be harmed by this is simply untrue,” said Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, the organization running the pro-charter campaign, which has raised more than $21 million, nearly twice the $12 million raised by Question 2 opponents. “The reality is, if someone wanted to open a charter school [there] tomorrow, they could apply.”

That is not all clear, however, from some of the alarms being sounded over Question 2.

If the ballot question is passed, the state board of education “could approve a language immersion, arts academy, or science and math charter school in Hingham,” Liza O’Reilly, a member of the Hingham school committee, wrote last month in the Hingham Journal. “This ballot question would allow the [state] Board of Education to decide how a significant amount of Hingham tax dollars are spent and how the public schools are structured without us – the Hingham tax payer – having any say in the matter.” She went on to add a dash of revolutionary fervor, calling the situation “taxation without representation.”

O’Reilly’s beef, however, doesn’t seem to be with Tuesday’s ballot question, but with the 1993 Education Reform Act.

Under the 1993 law, the state board of education, which authorizes all charter schools in the state, has had the power to approve a charter in Hingham – and to require payments to fund it from the town’s taxpayers – for more than two decades.  The fact that local school committees don’t have a say in the decision, which O’Reilly likens to colonial tyranny from on high, is not a defect of the charter school law, but one central feature of it.

The law was structured to give the state education board, whose members are appointed by the governor, authority to approve charter schools in communities where there is strong demand for alternatives to district schools. Charter schools have overwhelmingly located in places where district schools have struggled with low student achievement, and they have provided an alternative schooling option for lower-income families who may not have the means to move to another community.

A similar ability to override of local control undergirds the state’s affordable housing law, which allows affordable housing developers to skirt local zoning approval in communities that have not permitted enough affordable housing to meet a state-imposed threshold.

Steve Crawford, a spokesman for Save Our Public Schools, the campaign pushing a “no” vote, says the cap lift would affect a lot more than nine districts. Although the 78 charter schools in the state may be concentrated in a handful of cities, he said, they draw students from 231 communities.

He adds that communities like Hingham may not see much effect if the “yes” vote prevails, but other communities would. He pointed to Methuen, which already sends more than $700,000 a year to charter schools, and said it could see a lot more students head for charters in next-door Lawrence, one of the communities bumping up against the current cap, if the ballot question passes and new charters open there.

“It’s not just nine communities that are going to be affected,” says Crawford. “My guess is people who have put more than $20 million to get this question passed intend to create schools in as many communities as they can. This is a flawed question to the point where you can’t predict what the impact be.”

Charter supporters say the state has national reputation for rigorously evaluating charter applications and they insist there will be no surge of charter growth if the measure passes, especially in communities where there has never been strong interest in charter schools.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The uncertainty over that issue, however, is playing to the benefit of the Question 2 opponents, and it underscores the risk charter advocates took by putting a complicated policy question on the ballot.