Ballot Question #2 in Massachusetts

I confess to having some mixed feelings about Question #2. There seem to be good people on both sides of the issue, and one can make reasonable arguments both before and against the ballot measure. On the “for” side we have Governor Charlie Baker, the Boston Globe, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and former State President Thomas Birmingham and former Gubernatorial nominee Mark Roosevelt, both of whom were instrumental in passing the Education Reform Act of 1993. On the “against” side you have Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and a slew of public employee unions. I could go either way on this.

Nevertheless, I plan to vote NO on Question #2.

Question #2 would allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charter schools annually. Approvals under this law could expand statewide charter school enrollment by up to 1% of the total statewide public school enrollment each year. New charters and enrollment expansions approved under this initiative would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them, and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.[1]

When Charter Schools were first introduced they were designed to deal with two kinds of populations: gifted children (especially in minority and underserved communities) and difficult children (especially in minority and underserved communities). They were also intended to be “laboratories of education” where schools could experiment with unusual and effective ways of reaching their students.[2] Charter schools were not intended to function as a regular form of alternative education for families who are “frustrated” with their current school experience, which is what Question #2 threatens to turn them into.

I do have a concern about the financial impact of this ballot question on public schools. Advocates for the question like to note that the money follows the students and that it would “not take money away from the public schools,” but that’s not really true.

Consider the following scenario: suppose there is charter school out in the Pioneer Valley that draws high school students from Amherst and Pelham and Shutesbury and Sunderland and Hadley. The charter school takes 200 students collectively from these five towns, and the money follows the students to the new charter school. Now that new charter school doesn’t just need teachers: it also needs a building, and utility costs relative to the maintenance of that building. And the existing five towns still have the same building and maintenance costs for their schools, even if some of their teachers find re-employment in the charter school.

Next, it concerns me that there is no sunset date on this expansion. According to the text of the petition, this expansion continues year after year without any foreseeable end. I would rather have this proposal limited to something like a seven year cycle, and see how that has gone before proceeding further.

Finally, it also concerns me that there is so much “dark money” funding the pro-charter position in this election. In particular, there is a group called Families for Excellent Schools which is the primary financial supporter of the ballot initiative. As detailed in “The Nation,” this Super PAC is controlled by nine New York hedge fund billionaires, who have been out to reshape the public school system in the state of New York.[3]

According to the Office of Campaign & Political Finance in Massachusetts, Families for Excellent Schools have made $14,026,653 in 90 donations in the last six months.

Why would nine New York hedge fund billionaires care about charter schools, especially in Massachusetts? That, my friends, is an excellent question.

A lot of it smells of union busting and attempts to privatize the educational system in the United States.

Now, I’m not opposed to charter schools in general, but I think this debate may be better left to the Legislature, where attempts to increase the charter school cap have been and will continue to be debated. Let the Legislature sort this one out.

[1] If the Board received more than 12 applications in a single year from qualified applicants, then the proposed law would require it to give priority to proposed charter schools or enrollment expansions in districts where student performance on statewide assessments is in the bottom 25% of all districts in the previous two years and where demonstrated parent demand for additional public school options is greatest.

[2] The charter school idea was originated in 1974 by Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As originally conceived, the ideal model of a charter school was as a legally and financially autonomous public school (without tuition, religious affiliation, or selective student admissions) that would operate much like a private business, free from many state laws and district regulations, and accountable more for student outcomes rather than for processes or inputs.

[3] According to Ballotpedia, there has been $15,526,606 raised by the Yes on #2 campaign, which would make it the most expensive ballot initiative ever in Massachusetts. Again, $14,026,653 of that seems to come from Families for Excellent Schools.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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