Voting Down Question #2 Did Nothing to Help Massachusetts's Most Vulnerable Children

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.

Why I Am Voting "Yes" On Massachusetts Ballot Question Two

When Boston desegregated its schools, two decades had passed since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. My mother was a rookie teacher in Roxbury during that era, and her stories of being a White educator in a Black neighborhood rung through my early childhood. We ended up living in New Jersey for my school age years, but when I came to live in Massachusetts as an adult, to run an education nonprofit, the intervening decades had made a mockery of the concept of desegregation and its “deliberate speed.” Boston, and its schools, are more segregated now than ever, while many Massachusetts suburbs are among the Whitest municipalities in the entire United States. That segregation shows up as significant disparities in life outcomes, educational attainment, and resource allocation. Despite the fact that Massachusetts has “the best” public schools in the country by many standards, that excellence is far from universal, as White students in the suburbs are thriving, while on average, their peers of color receive a lower quality education.

Statewide 4th Grade Reading Proficiency, Student Percentage By Race

Statewide 4th Grade Math Proficiency, Percentages By Race

Statewide 8th Grade Reading Proficiency, Percentage By Race

Statewide 8th Grade Math Proficiency, Percentage By Race

Source for all data: http://www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/naep/results/2015ReadingMath.pdf

This history, and the results it has engendered, constitute the fundamental lens through which I view ballot question two, which asks voters in the Commonwealth to opine on whether or not to raise the statutory cap on charter schools. In a state with segregated communities and outcomes, charter schools do a better job of serving the most vulnerable children. This is not an opinion; it is an empirical fact. I want the Commonwealth to do something about the vast segregation and opportunity gaps in all schools, but it is immoral to further constrain vulnerable children's options while the state’s lawmakers struggle to find their consciences.

The messy politics of this issue, and the constant stream of negative messaging attached to it, have overcomplicated a simple fact: Massachusetts’s traditional schools and municipalities, for decades, have struggled to meet the needs of the state's most vulnerable children, while the state’s charter schools are doing better with kids of similar backgrounds. Those traditional schools, whose poor performance generates the need for charters in the first place, are the ones fighting expansion. The cap on public charter schools affects only nine urban communities in the state, while over two hundred school committees have voted to oppose the creation of new high quality public charter schools.

In other words, for forty years, White people have fled the cities of Massachusetts, and now their electoral might gives them veto power over expanding great schools for the vulnerable kids in those cities.

There are plenty of reasons to support voting “yes” on question two. Public charters in Massachusetts perform at a higher level relative to comparable schools, and polling suggests that there is a political preference for raising the cap in the affected communities. In addition, there is quantifiable demand for more charter schools in the capped communities, as thousands of families are on charter school waiting lists. When that demand is coupled with the waiting list for the METCO busing program, which has failed to grow because suburban communities refuse to create more space for low-income children, the need for greater options is even clearer. Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and the Brookings Institution all agree that charters in this state are working for the communities that need them most, and The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and former United States Senator Mo Cowan have endorsed lifting the cap.

I will be voting yes, not just for these reasons, but also because raising the cap is a moral imperative. The communities affected by the cap constitute a few of the majority non-White municipalities in a state that is almost eighty percent White overall. Polling confirms my personal experience, which is that these communities are impatient with the bickering and are eager to have more great schools. Opening more charter schools in those communities will have no effect on the financial position of the three hundred forty-two municipalities in the state that have not reached the cap, despite the opposition’s arguments to the contrary. Allowing the political objectives of White suburban voters to trump the educational needs of children of color is shameful. I am the product of suburban public schools, albeit in a different state, but I can testify to the fact that the interests of White suburban voters - even the progressive ones - are not necessarily congruent with the interests of communities of color in cities.

Demographics of Massachusetts

Towns Opposed to Raising the Cap

Towns Affected by the Charter Cap

Expanding charter schools in Massachusetts will not solve all of the Commonwealth’s educational problems. We need more high quality early childhood programs for vulnerable kids, improvement incentives for traditional district schools, and greater diversity and integration throughout the state. None of those things, however, are on the table right now, whereas voters have a chance to expand a program that is working for the kids who need it most. We should put our morals ahead of municipal politics and vote “yes" on question two.

Disagreement Without Hate or Hyperbole

This week Senator Elizabeth Warren urged Massachusetts's Governor, Charlie Baker, to be more assertive in his repudiation of Donald Trump's candidacy for president. Baker, a Republican, declared earlier this political season that he would not vote for Trump, but as Politico reports, Warren wants him to go further:

“It’s not enough for any Republican leader," Warren said. "It’s not enough to do this dance in-dance out, ‘Oh, I’m not voting for him but on the other hand I’m not going to condemn what he said … Donald Trump is right now the leader of the Republican party. I think that means that every Republican needs to make clear where they stand.”

Senator Warren and I agree on this issue. In August I argued that:

Governor Charlie Baker … 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. 

Senator Warren and I agree on a lot of other things besides this, including protecting women’s reproductive rights and the role of government in curbing the financial sector’s excesses. We disagree, however, on a local ballot question that would allow for the expansion of Massachusetts’s strong charter schools.

Even in a statement defending her position against lifting the statutory cap on charters, Warren celebrates the performance of the state’s high-performing public charter schools. She is correct in that assertion, and researchers from Stanford, MIT, and the Brookings Institution agree that charter schools in Massachusetts overwhelmingly outperform comparable schools. The only justification Warren provides for her position against the ballot question is an unsubstantiated suspicion that expanding charters will come at the expense of traditional schools. As Tom Kane, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, writes in Commonwealth Magazine, “When students choose to attend charter schools, a school district suffers a loss in enrollment, analogous to having its geographic boundaries redrawn … Once the adjustment is made, there’s no reason to believe that the school district will be any less viable.” In other words, Kane’s research negates Warren’s speculation.

Warren is right to be concerned about all schools in the Commonwealth, but she’s wrong to blame charters for the others schools’ woes. Charters are a symptom of public education’s missteps, not their cause. The racial and socioeconomic opportunity gaps in this state were around long before charters showed up. The same goes for the financial fragility of the Commonwealth’s tiny school districts. In her statement she expresses “hope that the Legislature” can solve these problems, which is admirable, but obviated by that legislature’s failure to do just that for the last five years.

I trust that Warren’s disagreement with lifting the cap comes from a place of principle, even if that principle involves privileging certain stakeholders over others in a way that disappoints me. While the Senator is wrong on this issue, my disagreement does not involve invoking hate, falsehood, or hyperbole, nor does it mean that we cannot agree on other issues. It does mean, however, that I intend to hold Senator Warren accountable for both pushing a legislative solution for these issues, which she has not yet done, and for defending the assertions that led to her decision, which I do not believe stand up to factual scrutiny.

The tenor of our politics has become toxic, and that’s bad not just for interpersonal dynamics, but also for the policy issues at hand. Progress seems possible when we have an existence proof for political agreement. Often the faith to pursue that path can be found in shared values. The Senator and I share many of the same values, so my hope is that we can find our way to agreement in the future.

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 http://waitlist.a-pik.com/ ... 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 http://waitlist.a-pik.com/ ... 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.

Millenials, Whiteness, Public Charter Schools, and the Massachusetts Democratic Party

Suburban Massachusetts. Photo credit - me.

Suburban Massachusetts. Photo credit - me.

Last week, a poll of Massachusetts Democrats revealed that a majority of the state’s left-leaners support raising the charter cap, which is “Question 2” on the November ballot in the Commonwealth. That result complicates the reasoning of the state’s Democratic party leadership, which voted to oppose the initiative behind closed doors last month. While powerful interests within the party – including the Massachusetts Teachers Association – are spending big money to oppose the initiative, those interest groups are out of step not just with the average voter, but also with the average Democrat.

Where the party’s position is even more tone-deaf is with younger voters and voters of color. The “crosstabs” of the poll reveal a fascinating disconnect. Whereas 54% of White Democrats are likely to vote yes to lift the cap, that number is 65% for Black Democrats, and a whopping 83% for Democrats under thirty-years old. Overall support for charter schools is just as striking. Whereas a clear majority of all Democrats support public charters – 62% - that number is 74% for Black voters and 84% for younger voters. Not to mention the fact that the cities with the highest concentrations of Latino families are the most supportive of raising the cap overall.

Percentage of Democrats Likely to Vote "Yes" on Question 2

Percentage of Democrats Who Support Charters

Demographics of Sen. Stan Rosenberg's District

It’s hard to tell from polling alone what these numbers mean, beyond overwhelming support for having more high-quality public charter schools through raising the cap in November. That said, these statistics help explain the failure to get a deal done on charters in a legislature whose leadership is dominated by the Commonwealth’s suburbs. For example, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, the central dealmaker in the upper chamber, represents twenty-four towns in Western Massachusetts, twenty-two of which are more than 93% White; his total constituency is 89% White, which is much Whiter than Massachusetts as a whole.

The numbers also reveal that statewide Democratic leaders, in both the legislature and party infrastructure, have lost touch with their membership in trying to cater to a special interest. Supporting the position of labor used to be a decent proxy for protecting the most vulnerable actors in a system, but when it comes to schooling, the middle- and upper-middle-class workforce constitutes a far more privileged class than the low-income students and families in Massachusetts’s cities. The younger generation of voters in Massachusetts is much less White than the rest of the state, and much less likely to buy the old-school version of progressivism that the party’s elders are selling. In the short-term, if those voters turn out in November, it should force the state’s leaders to rethink some tired positions. In the long-term, the Democratic party has a bigger demographic reckoning at its doorstep.

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.

A Safe Place for Hate

Yesterday, Ted Busiek, a Republican candidate for the Massachusetts state senate, went on twitter and said this:

It seemed unlikely that a legitimate candidate for the Massachusetts legislature would use a homophobic slur in public, but this is not a parody account. An hour after the initial tweet, Jamie Eldridge, the incumbent senator for the district in which Busiek is running, responded:

Eldridge here is deploying a slightly more garrulous version of #DeleteYourAccount, and the dynamic ought to be familiar to anyone paying attention to the national political repartee. Busiek's web presence is telling. The landing page of his campaign website has platitudes meant to reach voters feeling left out of politics, while his detailed policy platform is a hybrid of trade protectionism, regressive taxation, and the punishment of poor people. He even has a plan to create a state bank that issues its own currency, backed by specie, an idea that would be more than comfortable in the nineteenth century. If you dig deeper into Busiek's social media presence you'll find transphobia, racism, anti-immigration sentiments, and paeans to "western nationalism."

The GOP candidate for Massachusetts state senate who uses homophobic slurs on twitter.

The GOP candidate for Massachusetts state senate who uses homophobic slurs on twitter.

Busiek's candidacy is important to understand for three reasons. First, he's walking proof that there is no need to decide whether the 2016 mood into which Trump taps is either about "socioeconomic insecurity" or "racism and xenophobia." Folks like twitter's Propane Jane have done an heroic job of cataloguing the various ways in which these two things are not mutually exclusive, but rather interrelated. It's too easy to say that the racism and nationalism are a cheap ploy to grab attention; if the hate were really so distasteful to the folks for whom socioeconomic anxiety is a problem, candidates like Trump would get less traction.

Speaking of Trump, the second reason it's important to grapple with Busiek's existence is that having a figure at the top of a national ticket who is willing to say hateful things makes his party a safe place for hate. Trump is the font from which rightwing hate speech trickles down. Busiek has been working in Republican politics for almost a decade, including on Congressional campaigns in North Carolina, which means that the Trump infection is spreading. The presidency is the most visible political position in the country, and the folks that run for the job are ostensibly the most talented and polished politicians. The further down the chain, the worse it gets. In Busiek's candidacy we see the kind of unsophisticated hate that will undoubtedly become a trend in local and municipal politics, as folks realize that they can get both media attention and votes through peddling fear. (NB: I realize that I risk playing into that exact strategy by writing this, but silence is a more detestable option.)

Finally, it is easy to repudiate hate, and pillory its dispensers, particularly when that hate is deployed in such an unsophisticated manner. Trump is crude, and his minion Busiek is cruder still. That said, by the next election cycle, we are bound to see a thousand little hate flowers blooming, as the electoral benefits of adopting hate speech as political strategy become more apparent to those with aspirations to lead. Other newly christened politicians will understand that a more polished, elegant version of Trump's chicanery could muster a majority of the electoral college. Trump and Busiek are wolves in wolves clothing; I wonder whether there will be a run on sheep costumes in 2018 and 2020.

Busiek is free to say what he wants in order to collect votes, but the use of homophobic slurs verges on incitement in this time of heightened fear and instability. One of the great things about free speech is that while Busiek is free to say what he wants in the pursuit of political power, we also are free to marginalize and ridicule him for being trapped in a small world of hate.

BREAKING NEWS: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Against Ballot Question on Common Core

Ecstatic youth throughout the Commonwealth celebrate the confluence of a long weekend, and the dropping of a frivolous ballot initiative.

Ecstatic youth throughout the Commonwealth celebrate the confluence of a long weekend, and the dropping of a frivolous ballot initiative.

Earlier this year, a group called END Common Core Massachusetts collected signatures for a petition to put a question on the November ballot, which would ask voters to repeal the Common Core standards. While repealing the Common Core on is a bad idea, on its merits, today the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that the attorney general should not have certified the petition in the first place. You can read the entirety of the court's opinion, or you can read the relevant, yet still blisteringly opaque, parts here:

These cases indicate that at the core of the related subjects requirement is the condition that the initiative petition's provisions share a "common purpose," see Massachusetts Teachers Ass'n, 384 Mass. at 219-220;14 put slightly differently but making the same point, the petition's provisions, considered together, must present a "unified statement of public policy" that the voters can accept or reject as a whole ... Sections 1 through 3 may be said to share a common purpose: redefining the contents of the academic standards and curriculum frameworks for the Commonwealth's public schools. Section 4, however, which would amend § 1I to require annual publication of all the previous year's questions, constructed responses, and essays for each grade and core subject included in the mandatory diagnostic assessment tests, has the explicitly stated purpose of better informing educators about the assessment tests. Thus, the apparent goal of section 4 is to make more transparent the standardized diagnostic assessment tests and testing process required to be used in public education, and it is a goal that comes with a significant price tag: as the Attorney General agreed in oral argument before this court, implementing section 4 will require the development and creation of a completely new comprehensive diagnostic test every year, which means a substantial increase in annual expense for the board -- an expense to be borne by taxpayers and to be weighed by voters in determining whether increased transparency is worth the cost. An initiative petition properly may contain only subjects "which are related or which are mutually dependent."

In short, the petitioners wanted two separate, yet ostensibly related, questions on the ballot. They wanted to both repeal the Common Core, and to publicize the questions from the state's assessments every year. The court decided that the two issues did not meet the "related subjects requirement," as there was not "common purpose" between the two related, but separate, issues.

As readers of this blog know, this is good news for folks who care about education substance over education politics in the Commonwealth. The current standards are rigorous, and while not perfect, taxpayers have spent millions of dollars implementing them. To unwind the standards would have been an educationally superfluous, and fiscally irresponsible, undertaking.

From a national standpoint, this is a victory for the Common Core's preservation, albeit a temporary one. The leadership of the state of Massachusetts has been central to the national argument for the Common Core, and if the Bay State fell, it would have been a disaster for the nationwide endeavor. I say temporary, because, so far as I can tell, there's nothing stopping a group of petitioners from bringing the question again, but in a more sophisticated way, which could pass muster at the Supreme Judicial Court. This is a victory for both the Common Core and common sense, but not a permanent one.

Leveling the Playing Field for Massachusetts Families

It’s hard to argue that there’s sufficient equity in the Massachusetts public schools. While the state ranks high on most measures of academic performance, there’s one place where it’s close to dead last: opportunity gaps for our most vulnerable children. Only one state does worse than Massachusetts on the gap in performance between White and Latino children, and the gap between White and Black students is almost as bad. When it comes to Advanced Placement scores, students of color in Massachusetts perform at levels below their peers in other states, lest we assume that the real problem is that our White students are performing at such a high level that the data becomes distorted.

Fortunately, there are myriad efforts to level the playing field. There are STEM programs throughout the state aimed at our most vulnerable kids, state interventions in chronically failing schools, innovative high school designs, and nonprofits of varying size. While the results from some of these efforts are “mixed,” the state also has a set of charter schools, the highest concentration of which serve low-income families in Boston. Those Boston charter schools happen to be some of the highest performing public schools in the country, according to research conducted at Stanford. Those schools have been a huge part of leveling the playing field for Boston families, and more than 30,000 parents and kids are on those schools's waiting lists, because they want more of them.

Unfortunately, politics is getting in the way of expanding these schools, as the legislature will not act on a bill that would expand an arbitrary cap on the number of public charter schools that can operate in Massachusetts. Because of this failure of leadership, particularly in Stan Rosenberg’s state senate, where similar bills have languished for years, the issue of creating more schools will be on the November ballot. The ballot is a terrible place to set policy for families in Massachusetts's cities, as their interests risk being drowned out by a general election electorate that is much whiter, richer, and more suburban than the families whose interests are at stake here.

When those suburban voters head to the polls in November, they should consider the advice of this Brookline resident:

“For those of us who care about the broader picture and believe, like I do, our best path forward lies in educational equity for all children, why would you oppose any possible solution, especially if it doesn’t negatively impact your schools?”

Expanding public charter schools for the children in Massachusetts who most need great alternatives will have little impact on families outside of Boston, as Boston is the only major jurisdiction affected by the current arbitrary cap. It’s only fair that parents and families in our cities should have options, like those in the suburbs do. The Boston public charter schools certainly are not perfect, as all of Boston schools are wrestling with complex issues of race and class, but the public charters get better results with fewer resources than their comparable public schools, all while serving the state’s most vulnerable children. That's why there’s been significant bipartisan consensus in the past for expanding them. We know that opportunity gaps exist between our cities and suburbs in Massachusetts. Lifting the charter cap is one way to level the playing field and give Boston’s families more options, while we continue to pursue various means of assuring equity for the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable families.

Anti-Intellectual, Anti-Accountability, and Anti-Progress

The Hechinger Report has a long piece about the shifting sands of standards in Massachusetts:

Teachers and parents around the country have questioned whether any “cookie cutter” test can capture how much an individual student knows. The [old Massachusetts test] has long been considered one of the nation’s best tests at assessing student performance. But the shift to the Common Core State Standards meant it would have to go. The PAARC tests, used in states such as Illinois and New Jersey since 2015, were supposed to be even better. Not the joy-killing machines ruining childhood, as so many critics have portrayed standardized tests, but true measures of whether children were learning the key skills they would need as grown-ups: how to think critically, solve problems, make a convincing argument, and write a coherent paragraph.

Teachers always have used tests to assess student performance. I took tests, you took tests, we all took tests. Content standards and their concomitant testing regimes do not exist not because schools needed testing, but rather because we needed to make sure that we had universally high standards for vulnerable children. No matter how sophisticated an individual teacher is, he or she alone cannot determine the needs of all kids, particularly the ones who need the most attention and resources. That's why I cannot understand what Barbara Madeloni, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, is talking about:

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Madeloni rejects the premise that such a thing as a “good” one-size-fits-all test even exists ... Arguments like that drive Ronald Hambleton crazy. He’s the executive director of the Center for Educational Assessment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has served on committees for both PARCC and MCAS. He says that for the relatively small amount of time and money that is spent on testing, the returns are hugely valuable. “You need the assessment piece to provide feedback about strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “School reports, district reports, state reports — a tremendous amount of information is available" ... Madeloni argues that everyone already knew that achievement gaps exist between Massachusetts’s wealthy suburbs and its poor cities ...

"Everyone already knew" is a pernicious idea in public policy.* It's anti-intellectual, anti-accountability, and anti-progress. If everyone already knew, why didn't we do anything about it? If everyone already knew, why wasn't there a concerted effort to close the opportunity gap in Massachusetts before the state adopted standards and accountability in the 1990s?

While she derides the idea of protecting vulnerable children, Madeloni's primary political goal is to prevent the highest performing schools in Boston from expanding and receiving more resources. In the meantime, the national Civil Rights community is fighting for low-income children, whose interests will be easier to ignore if Madeloni gets her way on standards and the expansion of educational options. Keep an eye on the growing rift between the Massachusetts Teachers Union and the national Civil Rights community, as the politics are bound to get ugly between now and election season.

* An earlier version of this blog post said that this was "the most pernicious," but after a little reflection, I realized I was wrong about that, so I changed it.