The (Literal) Price of Transparency

Cambridge City Hall, where FOIA requests cost $17,000 to fulfill. Photo credit - me.

Cambridge City Hall, where FOIA requests cost $17,000 to fulfill. Photo credit - me.

"Question Two" will be the biggest issue on the November ballot in Massachusetts, and that initiative, regarding the statutory cap on public charter schools, is dividing the state's activists and municipalities in unpredictable ways. A recent public information request to the City of Cambridge came back with a $17,000 price tag, raising more questions about what is happening behind the scenes among local governments, the campaigns, and the local teachers' unions.

Question Two will ask voters whether or not the state should increase its statutory cap on charters schools, allowing up to twelve more public charters to expand under tight oversight. Given a lack of other competitive statewide races on the ballot in this reliably "blue" Commonwealth, an exorbitant amount of organizing and advertising energy is flowing into the charter ballot campaign. As Erika Sanzi points out, the bulk of the opposition organizing is happening in the state's predominantly White suburbs:

... we are seeing a major blurring of the lines when it comes to school events and union politics. The most recent example is in Andover, an affluent suburb that will never be impacted by the charter cap but who, like many suburbs, has a teachers’ union that is hell bent on making sure Question 2 is voted down. And in Andover, politics was front and center as parents turned out for the annual open house hosted by the school district. Not only were staff clad in “No on 2” buttons and holding matching signs but posters were up on the walls and signs were placed in the ground.

There is a significant mismatch between charter impact and charter antipathy. Charters have a negligible fiscal and academic impact on most suburban communities; there is not a single charter school in the town of Andover, and there are a grand total of six students in the municipality on charter waiting lists, according to public data. Compare Andover to Boston, where there are over ten thousand students on waiting lists, most of whom are from low-income communities. The waiting list disparity is easy to explain, as the research on urban charter schools in Massachusetts demonstrates that they have a measurable, and indisputable, positive impact on student outcomes. The evidence is so unusually clear that the author of a recent Brookings Institution report called Massachusetts's urban charters the "unicorn of policy analysis."

Charter school waiting list density by town in Massachusetts, courtesy of ... This  map image  is static, but you can  click through  to an interactive version, where mouse-overs reveal the city-by-city waitlist statistics.

Charter school waiting list density by town in Massachusetts, courtesy of ... This map image is static, but you can click through to an interactive version, where mouse-overs reveal the city-by-city waitlist statistics.

While clear data explains the demand for charters in communities with large waiting lists, the opposition in the suburbs is harder to explain without understanding politics, hence the public information request. The organized opposition to public charter expansion seems most vociferous among White suburban voters, as that is the target demographic for anti-charter messaging; polling data shows that younger voters and voters of color support charter expansion, while Whiter communities and older voters are less favorable. That predisposition might explain why the teachers' unions have spent so much time organizing in these suburbs, who have very little stake in the actual educational issues at hand.

It's easy to write off these politics as business as usual, but the blurring of politics and public service raises questions about the extent to which the campaign is coordinating with public officials. Sanzi is not alone in her curiosity, as Muck Rock submitted a public information request, on behalf of local Democratic party activist Meredith Segal, to determine if the city of Cambridge has been coordinating with campaigns on either side of the issue. In their response to the request, which became public today, the city is requesting a lot of money to fulfill its public duty:

Official response from the City of Cambridge to a request for transparency.

As a citizen of the "Republic of Cambridge," I am sort of stunned at this approach to transparency, which is a "principle" that elected school committee member Patty Nolan made a centerpiece of her recent campaign. Normally, principles and values are the sort of thing that one does not compromise, but apparently the price of public transparency in the city of Cambridge can be quantified, and it's roughly $17,000.

If the public is going to make an informed decision about increasing the number of public charters available to the state's most vulnerable families, folks deserve to have all of the data about how, where, and why the opposition is organizing. The Columbia Journalism Review studied the use of exorbitant fees to "price the public out" of public records, and USA Today reported that, "Whether roadblocks are created by authorities to discourage those seeking information, or simply a byproduct of bureaucracy and tighter budgets, greater costs to fulfill freedom of information requests ultimately can interfere with the public's right to know."

The public in Massachusetts has a right to know how demographics affect a community's willingness to support the expansion of charter schools, particularly when it seems that Whiter communities that already have strong schools are most likely opponents of expanding options for families in less wealthy communities. The public also has a right to know whether those preferences are the result of fair play or political interference with public servants, and at least one community is doing its best to obscure the public's ability to know the answer.