Revisiting the Question 2 messaging battle
Lots of factors in defeat of charter school expansion
CONFUSION IS THE ENEMY if you’re trying to build support for change. Local media still matters. And when it comes to education, voters will trust the word of their local school committee and their children’s teachers over that of their governor – even one who is rated the most popular state leader in the county.
Those were some of the takeaways from a conversation among Massachusetts political strategists who convened last week to assess the communications and messaging moves of the two sides in last November’s contentious ballot question campaign on charter schools.
The session, sponsored by a local chapter of the Communications Network and moderated by WBUR education reporter Tonya Mosley, featured two backers from each side along with Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group.
It came almost exactly six months after voters overwhelmingly defeated Question 2, which would have allowed up to 12 new charters per year on top of the existing state cap. Early polling looked favorable to charter expansion, but by time Election Day arrived the tide had reversed strongly. The question went down to a lopsided 62-38 defeat.
One huge factor in the outcome, agreed strategists from both sides, was voter uncertainty about the effect of more charter schools on the finances of traditional district systems.
Charter backers invited the funding debate by asserting in their first TV ad that allowing more charters would mean more money overall for the state’s public schools. It was an attempt to play off the fact that districts receive some reimbursement payments designed to ease the financing blow when students — and their funding — leave a system to enroll in a charter school. It proved too clever by half.
Question 2 opponents welcomed the focus on funding. The longer-term shift of dollars from districts to charters that accompanies student enrollment in publicly-funded, but independently operated, charter schools became the central argument of the No on 2 campaign. And it proved to be a highly effective one.
“We knew early on from polling, people definitely were confused about the funding,” said Lynda Tocci, a veteran Democratic strategist who directed the No on 2 effort.
The pro-charter campaign started advertising last summer and hoped to have time to establish its arguments, but opponents decided to respond by jumping into the airwaves war sooner than they had planned.
Marty Walz, a former Democratic state representative active with the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform, said that was a critical — and smart — move by the other side.
“You had a battle of TV ads very quickly in the campaign,” said Walz, “and the yes side didn’t have a period of time to try to level-set what voters understood about charters, and it became confusing to voters very quickly.”
“If you run a campaign that is trying to defeat a ballot question, you try to create confusion,” he said. “They were the yes side and they were running a no campaign. That’s why, in part, even our polling didn’t show in the end the kind of collapse the question would have.”
If voters are unclear about the impact of a ballot question, that almost always favors the side working to the reject the proposal, said Koczela. “‘No’ preserves the status quo; ‘yes’ changes something,” he said.
Koczela said voters knew very little about charter schools at the outset of the campaign, a situation that he said had not changed significantly by its conclusion. “Base knowledge about charter schools is something that was in very short supply, and it remains in short supply today,” he said. “What people learned from both campaigns represented a very large share of everything they knew about charter schools.”
Walz said it was also confusing to voters to hear the yes campaign insist that approving the charter expansion question would only really affect a handful of communities that were at or close to the existing state cap. She said it would have been better to have the question explicitly restrict charter expansion to those communities rather than apply statewide.
While millions of dollars were being spent on pricey television ads, those on both sides agreed that small weekly newspapers across state played an outsize role in boosting the “no” side.
“I’ve always believed in a local press,” said Crawford. “This campaign convinced me more and more of the power and influence of local press. The local papers in Billerica and Chelmsford and Northfield — they exist to cover the schools. They cover the school committee, school sports, school lunch, school budgets.”
More than 200 school committees across the state took votes expressing opposition to the ballot question, and those votes “got covered in literally hundreds of those little local papers,” said Crawford.
Liam Kerr, director of the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, said getting school committees to weigh in on the ballot question “was a masterstroke on the no campaign.”
He said the ballot question showdown did not just involve “the principals” — the charter schools supporting charter expansion and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which opposed it — but also “secondary or tertiary combatants.”
Kerr said the yes side felt buoyed by charter support from both of the education secretaries who served in the Obama administration — Arne Duncan and then, at the time of the ballot question, John King, whose early career in education included co-founding a Boston charter school. “In one sense, you think, oh my God, the Obama team. How much better can it get for Democratic messaging?” said Kerr, whose group supported, but was not in charge of, the pro-charter campaign.
But he said any lift from the Obama brand paled in comparison to the credibility and clout of school committees, as one committee after another declared its opposition to the ballot question. “You could not touch it,” said Kerr. “Talk about a trusted source.”
Koczela, who polled on the question throughout the campaign for WBUR, said the pro-charter side was also badly hurt by the emergence of a sharp partisan divide on the issue, with Democrats breaking strongly against the ballot question. Early polling had shown high levels of support for charter schools among both Democrats and Republicans.
The pro-charter side relied on Baker, the state’s Republican governor, as the main face of their advertising effort, with no prominent Democrats figuring in the campaign. The ballot campaign was run by the same strategists who directed Baker’s winning 2014 campaign for governor. As popular as he may be, Baker’s message on charter expansion could not compete with the one being delivered to voters from those closer to home.Walz said the combination of local schools committees speaking out and voters hearing concerns about charter expansion directly from their children’s teachers in district schools — which educate more than 95 percent of public school students in the state — delivered a powerful lesson straight out of the Tip O’Neill playbook.
“If ever there was an example of all politics being local, it is this question,” she said. “You’re going to go with the people who are telling you what’s best for your kid and your school.”