While the eyes of the world were focused on the Presidential election in the U.S. last week, an election as to whether or not to allow for more charter schools in Massachusetts also drew great interest.
Charters were authorized in the Bay State with the Education Reform Act of 1993. (This is the legislation new Alabama state superintendent Mike Sentence helped write.) Right now “Commonwealth” charters are capped at 120. (Though there are only about 80 in the state.)
And voters were asked to vote “yes” or “no” on Nov. 8th on increasing the cap by 12 per year. When all votes were counted, the “nos” got 62 percent while charter supporters only got 38 percent. In south Alabama this is called a “whupping.”
Like most such efforts these days, out-of-state money flowed into Massachusetts on the “yes” side. As best can be determined, some $26 million funded this campaign. Wall Street hedge fund managers gave millions. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg contributed nearly $500,000. Alice and Jim Walton, Wal-Mart heirs qave about $2 million. (Both Waltons gave money to the Alabama Federation for Children that supported campaigns in our 2016 state school board elections.)
Republican Governor Charlie Baker backed the measure strongly. So did Massachusetts Secretary of Education Jim Peyser. (Peyser holds the same policy slot Mike Sentence had 20 years ago.) Peyser’s stance ruffled many feathers.
“He should resign,” says public school advocate Jennifer Berkshire. “It’s outrageous that an official tasked with overseeing a public system in not only disinterested in it, but spends all of his time conspiring to blow it up.” (Has she been watching the legislative committee meetings in Alabama where we are trying to sort through the debacle of last summer called a superintendent search?)
Money was a key issue that motivated opposition. Under the Massachusetts funding formula, charters siphon away millions of dollars from public schools. It is estimated that this will amount to more than $400 million in the current fiscal year.
The city auditor of Lowell, MA reported to their council that the city’s net cost for charters has more than doubled since 2007 and is projected at $17 million this year. They have about 1,500 charter school students.
It is interesting to note that in many cases the strongest opposition to charter expansions came from communities that already have them. In Easthampton the “no” vote was 76.2 percent. There, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School will cost the community $940,000 this year. “It comes right off the top,” said Mayor Karen Cadieux. “Some say charters don’t cost us anything, but they can’t explain why I’m $940,000 short.”
While the “yes” campaign spent $26 million, the “no” campaign was well-funded to the tune of $10-12 million. But it was apparently a grass-roots effort that won the day. Some estimate that canvassers reached as many as 1.5 million voters asking them to oppose the measure. The fact that two-thirds of the school committees (equivalent to our school boards) passed resolutions opposed to raising the cap was significant.
Out of all of this, the REAL message for Alabama is that you can beat city hall when you get motivated. Will we ever reach such a point? I would hope so. Unfortunately, however, at this point I am not optimistic. We might knock on thousands of doors if someone wanted to stop us from playing football; but to demand equity in the education our children get, that’s a different matter.