A Tale of Two Ballots

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees held an event this week, and while I don't always see eye-to-eye with them, the school boards association is right to resist the misguided attempt to repeal the state's education standards. It was nice to see Rep. Alice Peisch denounce the effort as well:

If that ballot question were to pass, that is six years of work that will be irrelevant ... You hear a lot of comment on these standards that, I believe, is not accurate. I think it would be a huge mistake for a ballot question to determine what our students learn.

I couldn't agree more. Educators in Massachusetts, who overwhelmingly support the current curriculum frameworks, have spent those six years improving their practice and working towards a new international benchmark. To backtrack on those efforts would be a disaster for the students, particularly the most vulnerable ones.

While Peisch was dismissive of the effort to undermine standards, she was more measured about another imminent ballot battle:

I have been hopeful that we would be able to come up with some compromise that would remove the [charter question] from the ballot. We have until the beginning of July to do that. I am not giving up on that. But my optimism is somewhat less than it was a few months ago.

In my conversations with stakeholders and lawmakers, that sentiment is prevalent. Few legislators are eager to see a ballot question about the cap on charter schools, as the issue is likely to be hugely divisive, particularly in a presidential election year where turnout will be high. The unions are poised to spend millions of dollars to keep the current cap on charters, as their reactionary leadership loathes any effort at reform, and while the legislature has struggled to find a compromise that would prevent a ballot question, the state senate's proposed bill was packed with so many poison pill provisions that nobody with a stake in the issue could support the measure.

The ballot is bad place to make education policy; we elect legislators for a reason, and we only need to look to our progressive cousin on the west coast, California, to see the fiscal and regulatory disaster that awaits a state that settles policy scores on the ballot. Charter schools, though, are a unique issue. The need for charters is highest in vulnerable communities, those with both the most intractable schooling problems, and the highest concentration of out-of-school factors related to systemic poverty and racism. The legislature, on the other hand, is packed with suburban legislators whose connection to the real issues of weak urban schools and poverty can be tenuous, at best. In the meantime, thousands of students in the Commonwealth's urban areas are on charter school waitlists, and the charters in Boston are overwhelmingly the best in the country.

I'm frustrated that the state senate - the source of the stalemate on charters - has failed to find a solution for the last several years. We need to improve all schools in the Commonwealth, but the needs of the state's most vulnerable kids - particularly those in Boston - shouldn't have to wait for suburban legislators to decide they deserve better options.