Charter ballot money is fuel on ed debate fire

When asked a year ago about the propriety of the chairman of the state board of education donating $100,000 to the campaign to raise the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker deemed the matter a “nothingburger.”

He may have been right. It turns out that donation was just the lettuce, tomato, and onion. The juicy half-pound burger came in the form of an additional half-million dollars that Paul Sagan quietly dropped into the ballot initiative effort to expand charters in Massachusetts.

Earlier this month, officials levied the largest campaign finance violation fine in state history against a New York group that funneled $15 million into the ballot campaign without disclosing its donors. Among the contributions newly disclosed as part the disposition agreement state officials reached with Families for Excellent Schools – Advocacy were $496,000 from Sagan and $275,000 from Mark Nunnelly, the state’s chief information officer.

While there was no finding of campaign finance wrongdoing on the part of the donors, the revelations are not playing well in the court of public opinion. As chairman of the state board, Sagan oversees the authorization of new charter schools and the oversight of existing charters.

Not only have teachers unions and other charter school opponents jumped on the new revelations, Democrats see an opening to bloody up a popular Republican governor as he readies for a presumed reelection race next year.

Baker was the driving force behind last November’s failed ballot campaign to boost charter schools. The state Democratic Party called for Sagan to answer more questions about the donations or resign and for Baker to “come clean” on the matter. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez said Sagan should resign or be fired. Setti Warren, another Democrat in the race, sent an email to supporters saying it’s “hard to imagine Charlie Baker didn’t know about” the “illegal scheme” to fund the ballot campaign.

Baker said Sagan and Nunnelly did nothing improper, but said he cannot recall “off the top of my head” whether Sagan ever told him about the $500,000 donation he made on top of the previously disclosed $100,000 contribution.

The ballot campaign blow-up is adding to a partisan divide that has emerged on many education issues.

In 1993, Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the state’s landmark Education Reform Act, which ushered in a new education standards and accountability, including the MCAS exam, and also authorized the opening of charter schools.

Two decades later, Baker’s ill-fated push for the charter ballot question drew opposition from lots of Democratic officials, who said charter schools are undermining funding for traditional school districts. And Democrats in the Legislature are getting behind a bill to scrap the high-stakes MCAS graduation requirement, a move that the state party endorsed at its convention this summer.

Massachusetts charter schools, and those in Boston in particular, have been deemed by researchers to be among the most effective in the country in raising achievement levels among poor and minority students.

Charter school leaders say the “dark money” donations sloshing around in the ballot question campaign should be a separate issue from the debate about the role of charters in public education. But the mess created by those behind last year’s ballot campaign is blurring that line, expanding the partisan divide on education issues, and giving charter opponents plenty of fresh material to work with.

–MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

A Supreme Judicial Court ruling that there is no valid “field sobriety test” for driving while impaired by marijuana means the Legislature should act swiftly to develop a new law governing the issue, says a Herald editorial.

The decision by the Trump administration to lift restrictions on sending surplus military equipment to local police departments has given new life to a bill that would require a public hearing and approval by city or town elected officials before police can accept the items. (Greater Boston)

The Massachusetts Cultural Council presses the Berkshire Museum to stop the planned sale of its artworks. (Berkshire Eagle)

A state commission pushed the idea of Massachusetts moving year-round to Daylight Savings Time one step further, though it remains far from being implemented. (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh calls legalizing marijuana a “huge mistake,” but he won’t block pot shops in his community. The mayor’s comments differed sharply in tone from statements made by a top aide several weeks ago. (CommonWealth)

The family of a 7-year-old boy who drowned in 2016 while attending a municipal summer camp program in South Boston is suing Walsh and the city for negligence. (Boston Herald)

Braintree has completed a three-year contract with the police union that includes a provision for random drug testing. (Patriot Ledger)

Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill says he will not walk in next year’s Fourth of July Horribles parade unless changes are made to avoid questionable floats. (Salem News)

Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin declines to take a 2 percent pay raise she was owed this year, saying it’s the fair thing to do given the community’s finances. (Berkshire Eagle)

Daniel Kelley, the interim general manager of Greenfield’s quasi-public internet utility, was fired by Mayor William Martin amid a Town Council investigation. (Greenfield Recorder)

State inspectors found multiple violations at a pool in a Falmouth campground resort where a 4-year-old boy drowned this summer. (Cape Cod Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, is seeking White House documents relating to President Trump’s actions in office including his firing of his national security adviser and the FBI director. (New York Times)

Two major trade groups representing the health care industry joined a growing number of medical organizations by coming out in opposition to the last-ditch Senate effort to repeal Obamacare, saying the move would create chaos in the market. (New York Times)

ELECTIONS

All is not going swimmingly for many in Boston, says Joan Vennochi, laying out the case for why Tito Jackson ought to be getting more traction in his bid to unseat first-term incumbent Mayor Marty Walsh. (Boston Globe) Yvonne Abraham lets the three mayoral challengers Walsh refuses to debate have space in her column today to sound off on the biggest problems under his leadership. (Boston Globe)

The fight over a new Lowell High School will go to the ballot this November, as a group in favor of a downtown facility succeeded in gathering enough signatures to put a nonbinding question on the ballot. The Lowell City Council voted 5-4 this summer for a new high school near  Cawley Stadium, which is outside the downtown. (Lowell Sun)

State Sen. Barbara L’Italien is pondering a run for Congress from the 3rd District, but she actually lives in a part of Andover included in the neighboring district represented by Seth Moulton. (Salem News)

Former state representative John Stefanini has raised more money than the other six candidates combined, the majority of it from outside Framingham, in the race to become the first mayor of the state’s newest city. (MetroWest Daily News)

Ousted Trump adviser Stephen Bannon is sticking a finger in the eye of his former boss and declaring war on the GOP establishment by going all-in with his Breitbart site backing controversial former judge Roy Moore against the Trump-backed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the Alabama runoff for the Senate seat once held by Jeff Sessions.(U.S. News & World Report)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Federal Reserve announced it will begin divesting its massive $4 trillion bond portfolio it acquired at the height of the Great Recession in a sign of confidence that the economy is strong and low unemployment will continue. The move also sets up the potential for the third prime rate increase by the central bank this year after nine years of flat or falling rates. (New York Times)

Some question how easily Amazon could fill the 50,000 jobs at a second corporate headquarters if it landed in Boston, with concerns about competition for employees driving up the cost of tech talent for area startups. Others say it would help the state retain those who get tech training here but now leave the state. (Boston Globe)

Osgood Landing, a former Lucent plant in North Andover that has been largely abandoned since 2003, is put forward as the landing spot for Amazon by North Andover, Andover, Lawrence, and Haverhill. (Eagle-Tribune) A group of Boston business honchos, including Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, has formed an informal coalition of heavy hitters to push Boston as the spot for the online behemoth. (Boston Herald)

Lawyers for Carlos Rafael, the so-called New Bedford ”Codfather” convicted on charges of smuggling money and violating federal catch quotas, say they have found a local buyer for Rafael’s 13 permits that would remove him from the commercial fishing industry without disrupting the local economy. (Standard-Times)

EDUCATION

State Sen. Pat Jehlen is sponsoring legislation that would have the state’s school accountability system use student growth, not achievement, as the basis for measuring and holding accountable school performance. (Boston Herald) A report this summer from a Washington education think tank criticized the state for not using growth scores as a bigger factor in its accountability system. (CommonWealth)

Boston school superintendent Tommy Chang placed on a leave the principal of a Roxbury alternative high school serving students who have fallen behind amid reports of foul-ups in the school’s student registration process. (Boston Herald)

TRANSPORTATION

Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis was named chairman of the Massport board, replacing Michael Angelini. (Telegram & Gazette)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh proposes a string of parks along the sides of Fort Point Channel and man-made islands and marshes in the channel itself to prevent the flooding that comes from storm surge. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Supreme Judicial Court narrowed the guidelines for pursuing first-degree murder convictions, ruling that prosecutors must show a defendant set out to kill or knew his actions could prove fatal. (Boston Globe)

The state Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to rule on whether the town of Rockport can bar Ron Roma III from landing his helicopter on his property or whether such decisions must be made by state officials. (Gloucester Times)

MEDIA

MSNBC host Larry O’Donnell apologizes for an off-air, expletive-filled rant that was posted on YouTube. (Boston Herald)

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The state’s landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 ushered in more than “new education standards and accountability…MCAS…and…charter schools.” It also brought greater and more equitable funding to public schools through the Foundation Budget. The interesting thing about the Education Reform Act is that it was signed into law just a few days after the Supreme Judicial Court decided the McDuffy case. CommonWealth readers may not be familiar with the McDuffy case because it doesn’t fit CommonWealth’s public education narrative or that of the PAC – Democrats for Education Reform or the Pioneer Institute or any of the other pro-charter groups given space for their commentaries in CommonWealth. The McDuffy case was initiated in 1978 and was brought on behalf of students in certain property-poor communities who alleged that the school finance system violated the education clause of the Massachusetts Constitution. After the case worked its way through the court system over the course of FIFTEEN YEARS…or one whole generation of Massachusetts schoolchildren…the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state’s constitution imposes an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools. So yeah “Democrats and Republicans worked together” but it was a court case brought on behalf of students in property poor communities that really made the Education Reform Act a reality. Michael Jonas giving credit to Democrats and Republicans for the 1993 Education Reform Act is like saying Rosie Ruiz really won the Boston Marathon. By the way, she didn’t.

    • jeanabeana

      Boston is gradually returning to the property tax-based system of funding schools that was struck down by McDuffy decision and this trend is so clear that a former school superintendent was quoted as saying that he “could envision a day when all Chapter 70 funding will end up in charter schools” totally depriving the other schools of resources…. that is purposefully intended by people such as Sagan and Peyser and Baker.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    I wonder why Michael Jonas didn’t get some “charter school leaders” on the record about the “dark money” contributions behind Question 2? What about interviewing Jeremiah Kittredge? He signed the Disposition Agreement on behalf of Families for Excellent Schools – Advocacy…the dark money group that funneled those undisclosed contributions to his other pro-charter group, Families for Excellent Schools. Kittredge was president of both groups. Or Jon Clark? The co-director of Brooke Charter Schools who set up Great Schools Massachusetts ….the group that paid professional out of state signature gatherers to get Question 2 on the ballot while giving the illusion parents were volunteering to collect those signatures. Or Paul Grogen, the president of The Boston Foundation? His group financed two reports leading up to the November 2016 vote that certainly came out very pro-charter schools. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation’s “PUBLIC EDUCATION FUNDING IN MASSACHUSETTS: PUTTING CHARTER SCHOOLS IN CONTEXT” came about through a grant from The Boston Foundation and was simply two dozen pages of misinformation. The other TBF funded report was “The True Cost of Boston’s Charter Schools” by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. That was another joke of a paper. Never mind. I see why the “charter school leaders” are unnamed and not interviewed.

    • jeanabeana

      Northeastern U. “Charter Schools: At What Cost?” That was a good report that none of these people you mention would ever consider…. it was not a study supporting charter schools.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    I looked up the study Michael Jonas cited showing “Massachusetts charter schools, and those in Boston in particular, have been deemed by researchers to be among the most effective in the country in raising achievement levels among poor and minority students” thanks to the link provided in his article. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ webpage for “Urban Charter School Study” also includes some reviews of that study. Here’s Andrea Gabor’s take on it: “…After combing through the study and its accompanying technical document, and after exchanging a series of emails with Macke Raymond, Director of CREDO, we found significant problems with the CREDO study. The problems go well beyond technical quibbles and suggest that any generalizations drawn from the study about the quality of traditional public schools relative to charter schools would be a big mistake. In particular, the study does a poor job of explaining the basis on which it includes or excludes charter- and public-school students; an email exchange with Raymond clarified the study’s methodology, but also revealed that it introduced, in many cases, an anti-public-school bias. And, in at least one case—the findings on New Orleans…Raymond admits that CREDO violated its own methodology, a fact not disclosed in either the study or its accompanying technical documents.” Ms. Gabor didn’t go into CREDO’s Virtual Control Record (VCR) methodology where CREDO compared real charter school students to “virtual” or make believe public school students in the study though. The same discredited studies are pointed to over and over again as proof charter schools are better than public schools. Sadly, that’s how it works.