Victory for public education in Massachusetts referendum

By JOE AUCIELLO

— BOSTON — In Massachusetts, a November ballot question that would have allowed for the creation of up to 12 new charter schools per year was soundly defeated. What’s more, the most resounding setbacks for charter supporters occurred in the very cities where the new schools would have been formed. In Boston, where charter schools were promoted as the alternative to mediocre or failing schools, the ballot initiative lost by 24 percentage points, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Charter schools are public schools, but they operate separately from local school districts and local school boards. Teachers, for instance, are not required to have state certification. The schools typically have no teachers’ union and are not required to adhere to union contracts.

Equally important, if not more so, is the fact that funding for charters schools comes from tuition paid by the students’ local school districts. This reduces the amount of money available to serve students in the “sending” schools, resulting in a statewide loss to public education of an estimated $400 million. Considering that public schools are already chronically underfunded, the real loss is far greater.

Massachusetts now has 80 charter schools, with an enrollment of more than 40,000 students. Another 30,000 students, including many minority children, are currently on charter school waiting lists.

This electoral contest was a vote with national implications. From 2003-2013, the number of charter schools throughout the United States more than doubled, from approximately 3000 to 7000, with 3 million students. Had the results been different, the Massachusetts campaign for charter schools would have become a template for similar initiatives to defund and dismantle public education in other states. The conservative agenda that is hostile to teachers’ unions would have scored a victory by increasing the number of schools where union contracts are not allowed.

Such measures, as former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders noted, were “Wall Street’s attempt to line their own pockets while draining resources away from public education at the expense of low-income, special education students, and English language learners” (Cape Cod Times, Nov. 2, 2016).

So, when the state teachers’ unions went on a campaign to mobilize their members to counter the charter school propaganda, teachers turned out in large numbers, talking to voters directly in door-to-door efforts and by staffing phone banks.

The ballot proposal in favor of charter schools did not fail through lack of funds, prominent backers, or a professional organizing effort. Twelve million dollars was raised by September, and an additional $12 million was spent before the November election. That $24 million set a record for money spent on any ballot question in Massachusetts. It was also $10 million more than the amount raised by state and national teachers’ organizations. Much of the money was spent on well-produced, skillfully written television commercials featuring charter school teachers in their classrooms, spinning feel-good messages. These ads assured viewers that charter schools not only enhance learning opportunities for their students, they do so without creating any ill effect on public education.

In a brazen blend of political acumen and deceit, the commercials asserted what is not true while not actually lying. They claimed that charter schools reimburse costs to the public schools for the students who leave. In Barnstable County, for instance, the reimbursement rate was approximately 15 percent, which meant that Cape Cod and Islands schools lost roughly $15 million. These misleading ads flooded the airwaves and completely outspent the opposing message.

The source of this ample, pro-charter treasure chest was deliberately made obscure. In addition to support from figures like the heirs to the Walmart fortune, the largest source of funding was a New York-based organization called “Families for Excellent Schools.” Despite requests from journalists, this umbrella organization has not revealed its donors, which may well include a contingent of corporations.

From 2003-2013, the number of charter schools throughout the United States more than doubled, from approximately 3000 to 7000, with 3 million students. An electoral setback in one state is not the end.

The defeat of the right-wing agenda in Massachusetts is a significant one—it shows that money and propaganda do not make victory inevitable—but the triumph is not yet decisive. The anti-union reactionaries also rally around the slogan: “The struggle continues.” What’s more, they possess the resources to mount another campaign practically anywhere in the country.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump spoke of increasing the number of charter schools and voucher programs, which provide students with public funds for private school tuition, including religious schools. President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, an advocate for “school choice”—that is, charter schools and voucher programs—shows that before long the battle to defend public education will need to be joined once again.