Don't Be Fooled: Leading Massachusetts Democrats Support Lifting the Charter Cap

Boston from above. Photo credit - me.

Boston from above. Photo credit - me.

The Boston Globe pulled back the curtain this morning on an internecine fight amongst the state’s Democratic party leadership:

A ballot proposal to expand charter schools across the state could drive a further wedge between Democratic Party factions when state committee members gather Tuesday night in Lawrence … Charter schools have long been a contentious issue among Democrats, forcing activists to take sides between two traditional party constituencies: minority and low-income families versus teachers unions.

While over 30,000 vulnerable families are on waiting lists for the state’s statutorily constrained public charter schools, the teachers’ unions are pushing for the party to adopt a resolution in opposition to the ballot initiative. The party, however, is far from united on the issue. Marty Walz, a Democrat who served in the Massachusetts house and later ran the state’s Planned Parenthood operation, wrote the progressive case for expanding the charter cap last week. A national co-chair of the Obama for America campaign made a similar argument last month in Commonwealth Magazine, and scores of Democrats nationally support the expansion of high quality charter schools. As Dominique Calixte, a Boston charter school graduate and Democratic party activist wrote in the Dorchester Reporter this week:

My classmates and I are living proof of what is possible when families are given access and choice. After college, when I had the opportunity to work for the state Democratic Party, I was shocked to learn that some of my colleagues were opposed to charter schools. As I learned about President Obama’s (and now Hillary Clinton’s) support for great public charter schools, I was reminded that access to a quality education is at the heart of what Democrats believe in. We all have a vested interest in the education of our youth.

The progressive Democratic case for expanding high quality public charter schools is straightforward: those public schools provide a safety valve for families whose schooling options have been restricted by de facto segregation, institutional racism, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the political interests of public schooling’s status quo forces. We should invest in making all schools fantastic, and we should provide as many great schools as possible while working to make that goal a reality. Doing both is the political equivalent of walking and chewing gum, and even the national teachers’ unions nominally support the expansion of high quality charters. Given the fact that Boston's public charters are the highest performing in the whole country, it’s hard to understand why those same unions are pouring money into opposing expansion in this state.

Given the overwhelming evidence that Massachusetts has the best performing public charters in the country, coupled with the clear divide within the Democratic party on the issue, there is no reason that the state’s party leadership should oppose lifting the cap. Two things would help make that case even clearer. First, high-profile Democrats in the state who support charters should step up and make their support more public. Congressmen Seth Moulton and Stephen Lynch, both of whom support high quality schooling options, should send a public message to local party leadership. Former Governor Deval Patrick, who partnered with President Obama to expand quality charter schools, also should take a public position, providing cover to local leaders who are skittish on the issue.

Second, Governor Charlie Baker, who supports lifting the cap through the ballot measure, should dispense with his public ambiguity and endorse Hillary Clinton for president, thus avoiding causing political headaches for Democrats who go to the polls in November. The Republican governor has said that he will not support his party’s presidential candidate, but that’s not going far enough. If he wants the Commonwealth’s Democrats – who will outnumber Republicans at the polls in November by a two to one margin – to support lifting the cap, he should meet them halfway and endorse Clinton. When I talk to progressive voters, they want to support the expansion of high quality options for vulnerable families, but the toxicity of the national political conversation, coupled with the overt racism espoused by the GOP presidential nominee, has made it harder for those progressives to believe that any policy reform endorsed by the political right will benefit families of color. If he endorses Clinton, Governor Baker will give tacit permission to Democrats who might otherwise be queasy about lifting the cap.

Finally, Democrats who support quality schools of any kind, like Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, should continue to both speak and vote their consciences on this issue. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are monolithic in their support for expanding great charter schools, and the moods and monies of particular interest groups shouldn’t drive the Democratic party’s platform on the issue.