Despite remarkable evidence that Massachusetts’s public charter schools outperform comparable traditional schools, voters in the Commonwealth voted to keep the cap on charters with an overwhelming “No” vote on “Question #2” on Tuesday.
By the time ballots were cast, the campaigns on both sides of the issue spent close to thirty million dollars on issue ads and voter canvassing; in a place with a non-competitive presidential election, much of the state’s electoral oxygen was burned on the charter issue. The opposition’s argument, that charter schools are a frontal assault on traditional school districts and their host municipalities’ budgets, was sticky. More than two hundred of those towns voted to oppose lifting the cap, and a late intervention by Moody’s, declaring that a lifting of the cap would cause disruption in some cities’ bond ratings, reinforced those fears.
Question #2 Spending, in Millions of $
While the opposition to charters got an unequivocal win, nothing about Massachusetts’s public schools improves when we prevent opening a few more of the best ones. The state still has as many struggling schools and districts as it had on Monday. The school finance system is still a mess. Charter schools still perform at a higher level than traditional schools, there are still thousands of parents on charter and METCO waiting lists, and the White children in the suburbs still receive a much higher quality of schooling than their peers of color. All of those things were true on Monday, they’re still true today, and the best charters are going to continue to prove what is possible for vulnerable kids and families.
The “No on #2” crowd ran a campaign saying they want to improve schools for all children. I’m curious to see how they deliver on that promise. In the coming months I’m looking forward to a comprehensive plan to dramatically improve underperforming schools, with leaders of the charter opposition out front. Fixing the funding formula alone will not improve schools. New Jersey, a state with similar demographics, tried a funding-only fix decades ago, with little improvement in results, while Connecticut has been embroiled in a complicated, unresolved funding battle for years. The coalition that opposed charters could fracture when it becomes clear that struggling schools in the Gateway Cities are the places with the greatest financial need, not the suburbs.
Leaders on both sides of the charter issue should do some soul-searching about politics. The “No” campaign was committed to denying clear evidence that charters out-perform traditional school districts. That evidence was validated by Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and the Brookings Institution. I expect anti-fact, science-phobic opposition from climate change deniers on the far right, but not from the anti-reform faction of the left. I hope that this tactical approach was a blip on the radar, and not an indication of a darker future for leftist politics. I happen to agree with those activists on many other issues – including healthcare, the role of government in regulating the financial industry, and the importance of protecting vulnerable workers. Folks who support those issues will shake the ethical foundations of their future causes if they retreat to the anti-scientific world of ideological close-mindedness.
Charter supporters, on the other hand, need to rethink their entire political approach. Despite the fact that charters demonstrably outperform their peers, their modest proliferation couldn’t muster a political majority in the Commonwealth, while their opposition was motivated enough to spend millions of dollars opposing them. While some supporters might blame the intransigent opposition of teachers’ unions for the loss, the “Yes” campaign should have anticipated a motivated opposition with a superior organizing apparatus when they chose the ballot as their battleground. While charter supporters spent millions of dollars on advertisement, political veterans know that late expenditures are little competition for either a sophisticated ground game or a motivated self-interest, and charter opponents had a surfeit of both. Charter proponents should do a post-mortem thought experiment, wherein they consider how this election might have been different if they had spent thirty million dollars organizing voters in affected communities for the last decade, versus dropping a pile of cash on political ads and consultants in the last six months.
The optimist in me believes that the Commonwealth’s “Question 2” rebooted a statewide conversation about education equity and quality. The opposition, if it wants to prove that their campaign wasn’t just about protecting suburban budgets and traditional public school jobs, should use their energy to advance that agenda. There are leaders in the state who understand that we need to both expand great charters schools, and find solutions for our broader education woes. We didn’t solve any problems on Tuesday, so let’s do our best to rally around better outcomes for vulnerable kids now.