At some point over the past few weeks, each of the four Nov. 8 state ballot measures stirred up mixed feelings in me (yes, even the weed one). But no issue had me more conflicted than Question 2, which proposes to authorize the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools per year beginning Jan. 1.
I’m voting No, but deciding wasn’t easy. Apparently, I’m not alone. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released at the end of last week shows that likely voters in Massachusetts are divided on charter school expansion 45.4 percent to 45.4 percent, with about 9 percent of voters undecided.
This split may belie some shared confusion about how to provide our kids with good (even great) primary and secondary public education. Sadly, nuanced analyses of Question 2 are hard to come by. Proponents point to charter schools as a stellar means of closing the achievement gap, especially in urban school districts. Meanwhile, most opponents of Question 2 see charters as a drain on the budgets and resources of traditional public schools. (To a degree, both claims are true).
The fight is too often framed as a referendum on whether charter schools are good or bad. But that’s not the issue. Many voters, regardless of political affiliation, believe in charter schools. In a well-regulated state like ours, they are largely staffed with creative and competent teachers. We care enough for charters, in fact, to have provided for dozens more: there are currently only 78 charter schools in Massachusetts out of a statewide cap of 120. That leaves more than 40 opportunities to open new schools, Question 2 be darned.
So wherefore this new measure, which would — in the words of Boston City Council education committee chairman Tito Jackson — amount to “taking funding away from existing schools and moving funding to schools that don’t exist yet,” under a mandate to approve 12 new charter schools “each year, every year, anywhere, forever”?
If you’re curious who benefits from the expansion of charter schools (spoiler alert: it’s not just parents desperate for better options for their kids), follow the money. Because although public opinion is split right now, it took a lot of paid air time to get us here.
According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the two campaigns have spent nearly $33 million, as of Oct. 27. More cash has been raised for this issue than for any other ballot battle in the last ten years — more than double the dollars spent during the casino debate in 2014 — which, until this summer, had been the state’s most expensive ballot question campaign.
So, where’s all this money coming from?
Funding for the “No on 2” campaign comes mainly from the groups you’d expect: more than 99 percent of the funding for “Save Our Public Schools” has come from teachers’ unions, with about half the money provided by in-state unions like the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the other half coming from national unions like American Federation of Teachers and the National Educational Association. Total spending for “No on 2” so far is about $13.4 million.
Question 2 proponents, on the other hand, have spent about $19.5 million, and the source of those funds is less transparent. Not only did a mere one-fifth of that money come from in-state, but more than three-quarters of that $19.5 million is “dark money” from intermediary nonprofits that are not required to identify donors.
The two biggest bankrollers of “Yes on 2” are Families for Excellent Schools, a New York-based nonprofit that has contributed $13.6 million, and which receives donations from DonorsTrust — a group that collects from conservative mega-funders like the Koch brothers — and Jim and Alice Walton, heirs to the union-busting Walmart empire, who put in another $1.8 million.
This serves as a sobering call for the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United v. FEC to be overturned, like, yesterday. But this glimpse into the activities of wealthy out-of-state interests also shows how fully this ballot question has become a lightning rod in a national debate over the future of public schools.
It’s not clear how a Yes on 2 on Election Day would play out. But one thing is obvious: corporate interests are better poised than ever to shape the future of public education in America — starting with charter schools, which are largely publicly funded and which are frequently not unionized.
We are fortunate that Massachusetts, which opened the door to charter schools in 1993, does not allow schools to be run by for-profit groups (other states, like Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee, have no such restriction). For now in the Bay State, anti-union families like the Waltons can’t make money on this issue — they can only spend it. Which, to me, is just as troubling. Most of our state charter schools are well-run. But we would do well to be wary of measures that invite the increased privatization of public learning. When that happens, it’s not just students who suffer — democracy does, too.
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.