Election 2016

The $34 million question

What Massachusetts' most expensive ballot initiative ever reveals about the bitter national debate over charter schools

What Massachusetts’ most expensive ballot campaign ever reveals about the bitter debate over charter schools

While the country decides between two of the most despised presidential candidates in history, another contentious issue is playing out in Massachusetts that has nothing to do with Hillary vs. Donald. On Tuesday, voters in the Bay State will weigh in on a ballot initiative that seeks to expand the number of charter schools in the state.

Question 2 proposes raising the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state by 12, up from the current cap of 120. As the most expensive ballot initiative in Massachusetts history, the proposal reveals one of the biggest debates in national education reform: Do charter schools offer a lifeline to underserved communities, or are they a Band-Aid solution that does long-term harm to the populations they intend to serve?

Public opinion has been split but leans toward the “no” side on Question 2, according to recent polls. TV ads, fliers, and phone calls coming from both sides of the fight, have been relentless leading into Election Day. If the initiative passes, it will signal a prominent nod of support for the growing charter movement nationally, which has picked up steam in the past decade as an alternative education policy solution.

Charter schools are a controversial issue, especially in Massachusetts, where education policy is not taken lightly. The schools are free and open to any student via a lottery system, but they must meet certain performance standards to stay operational over the course of five-year charters. And they’re still publicly funded: Whenever a student leaves their home public school to go to a charter school, the average cost per student in that district goes with them. So in other words, if 5 percent of a district’s students attend charter schools, 5 percent of that district’s public education funding is siphoned off with it.  

Critics contend that charters suck money out of public school systems that desperately need it and exacerbate disparities in already underserved and underfunded districts. Allison Hammer is a seventh grade public school teacher in Bedford, Massachusetts, and has been actively campaigning against Question 2 as a member of the local teachers’ union.

“The way I see it [is] that [charters] are taking away from all those kids who are left behind,” Hammer said. She sees the benefits of some charters but worries about the effect they have on district schools. “I wish there was a way they could be funded without hurting the kids who are still in public schools.”

But supporters of Question 2 argue that charter schools offer a much better — and often the only — education alternative for students in areas with poor public schools.

Sherley Bretous runs the Benjamin Banneker charter school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and supports Question 2. She is unequivocal about the benefit of and need for charter schools.

“We serve predominantly African-American students who have been underserved in their home districts,” Bretous said. “And we are outperforming students in their home districts by 10 to 12 percent.” Banneker does perform markedly better than traditional Boston public schools when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

Opponents take issue with how funding for charters affects the rest of the public school system. Teachers like Hammer point to the fixed costs associated with running public schools, like teacher salaries and maintaining facilities, that don’t decrease with fewer students.

“They don’t all leave from the same classrooms,” Hammer argued. “You can’t just cut one teacher’s salary or decrease a certain amount of heating from the building.”

Massachusetts public schools are already underfunded by $1.1 billion, according to a bipartisan report from last year. The district with the highest percent of public dollars going to charters, 17 percent, is in Boston. About half of all students in the Boston public school system are economically disadvantaged.  

Complexities aside, Massachusetts has some of the best-performing charter schools in the country, the majority of which serve low-income and minority populations. A 2013 report from Stanford University showed that Massachusetts students in charters tend to score higher on reading and math tests than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Charters in Boston, especially, have shown higher results when compared with nearby public schools. Students in Boston charter schools scored an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT than their public school peers. Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and MIT found that Boston charter schools  are closing about one-third of the achievement gap between black and white students in math and about one-fifth of the achievement gap in English in a single school year. The fact that the Boston public school system is one of the worst-performing in the states makes those results even more stark. Students from that district enter charter schools at a lower level from the start.

The high performance rates of charter schools in Massachusetts are buoyed by the fact that the state already has one of the best public education systems in the country. Charters have been less successful in other states, such as New Orleans, where they rapidly expanded in the city but failed to deliver many of the promised results.

Critics also claim that charters don’t provide the same level of services for students with special needs or English-language learners as public schools do. Teachers at charter schools are not unionized, and the curriculum doesn’t have the same state oversight for how material is taught and by whom as traditional public schools.

But this lack of regulation also allows for more experimentation in teaching techniques and classroom structure. At the Benjamin Banneker school, the student-teacher ratio is smaller, and there’s a wide array of extracurricular activities unavailable to the traditional public schools in the area. In other words, charter schools in Massachusetts essentially provide a free private school education to mostly low-income and minority students.

“The regular public schools are not serving particular populations,” Bretous said. She decided to send all three of her children to charter schools because “they were the [schools] that were producing for students who look like my kids.”

More than 10,300 Boston students currently sit on the waitlist for charters.

Question 2 is controversial for other reasons too. The issue has attracted a flood of cash on both sides — $34 million in total —  much of it from large, out-of-state organizations and unions.

Almost all of the money backing the “no” side comes from teachers’ unions, with slightly more than half from Massachusetts teachers’ groups and the rest from national unions.

On the pro-charter side, 76 percent of the money spent comes from “dark money” donations, nonprofit groups not required to disclose their donors. The biggest of these is Families for Excellent Schools, a national organization that successfully pushed for similar legislation in New York. A recent investigation by International Business Times found that executives at the Wall Street firms that manage the pensions of public school teachers have given millions to Families for Excellent Schools to push for Question 2.

As such, the issue has drawn prominent backers and detractors. Massachusetts’ popular Republican governor, Charlie Baker, is a vocal leader of the pro-charter side and recently appeared in a television ad paid for by Great Schools Massachusetts, an umbrella organization that includes Families for Excellent Schools.

“Public charter schools give parents a choice and are a pathway to success for these kids,” Baker claimed in the new television ad. “If you like your school, Question 2 won’t affect you, but Question 2 will change the future for thousands of kids who need your help.”

Meanwhile, liberal heroes Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both come out against Question 2.

“I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters,” Warren said in a statement expressing her opposition. “Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”

For Allison Hammer, the teacher in Bedford, the issue is about the 96 percent of Massachusetts public school students who don’t reap the benefits of charters, not about the students who already do.

“The amount of funding that is given to schools is really the issue,” Hammer said. “It would be wonderful if we could solve the issues of public school education, but I know that not all schools are created equal.”

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter; @oliviaLbecker

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