I’ve been having a hard time making sense of the thumping that charter schools suffered in Massachusetts on election day. Generally speaking, charters have strong support among families. Specifically speaking, Bay State charters are producing among the best results for kids—especially city kids—of any schools anywhere. And in the era of “local control,” giving families the ultimate local control—control over what public school your kid attends—should do well at the ballot box.
So then why did 62% of Massachusetts voters say no to lifting the state’s cap on charter schools?
The answer starts with the teachers unions’ all-out war against charters, which generally are staffed by non-union teachers. This was a must-win for them to try and stem the charter tide, especially given that it’s a blue state where their war chest plays. They poured millions into the campaign, and they leaned on political heavy-hitters like lefty all-stars Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Marty Walsh to go to bat for the “No”s. And they kept aggressively swinging the “siphoning money” lumber to convince voters that more charters would jeopardize already-iffy funding for their schools.
But again, given the popularity and effectiveness of charters, shouldn’t it have at least been closer, with the right campaign? I’m not so sure.
The funding issue is rough. It’s easy to attack and complicated to defend. Especially when it’s out there twisting in the wind by itself, like it seems to have been on this ballot
That’s what I see as the biggest reason that charters lost in Massachusetts. The perceived downside—loss of scarce dollars—was much bigger than the upside—a few more probably good schools, probably somewhere else. That’s really all it boiled down to for lots of non-ideological voters when having to choose a yes or no box.
In other cities where charters were on the ballot—but as part of a larger improvement package in the form of school board candidates and district leadership—there were wins, most notably in Oakland and Indianapolis.
I’ve found that charter discussions are much less divisive and much more productive when charters and choice are a piece of a larger policy picture. When I worked in the Denver Public Schools, the union and reform opponents constantly portrayed us as having a charter fetish. We worked all day and dreamt all night about ways to “privatize,” was their storyline.
Which was total nonsense. We believed in choice and opening new and better schools, both charter and district-run, but that was a small part of how DPS spent its time. Like most city districts, what kept us up at night wasn’t charters. It was improvement and equity.
And that’s what we talked about. We talked about how all of our schools fit into that picture, but only used the “charter” or “district-run” label when it was relevant.
The funding discussions were still messy and hard. We emphasized that the dollars follow the kids to the schools they choose. Those are public dollars that belong to that family and not “the system.” But seeing public schools with strong connections to a neighborhood shrink in enrollment and stature is a hard thing for a community.
That’s what makes the bigger picture so important. It needs to focus on improving service for the entire community, holding all schools to the same standards of access and results, and empowering families to choose the right school for their child.
When that is the full picture staring up at voters, and choice/charters are just one piece, they’ll check the box next to Yes.