In what’s being hailed by education pundits as the most important K-12 policy fight this election cycle — possibly more crucial than the outcome of the presidential race — Massachusetts voters will decide Tuesday whether to lift a cap on charter school growth.
The outcome would directly affect the school options only for students in Massachusetts, particularly in cities like Boston where existing charter schools have a track record for strong student performance, but the decision could have huge implications for the expansion of charter schools nationally. As advocacy groups on both sides of the issue bombard residents with record-breaking campaign spending, recent polls don’t offer a clear victor.
In Massachusetts, where 78 charter schools serve more than 43,000 students, a cap on charter schools sets their limit at 120 schools. A cap also limits spending: For this year, funding for charters in the lowest-performing 10 percent of school districts cannot exceed 18 percent of the district’s total net spending. Other districts are unable to spend more than 9 percent of their net spending on charter schools.
Ballot Question 2 would allow charter operators to create 12 new or expanded schools each year anywhere in the Commonwealth. Supporters have called the increase a necessity to give school choice to students who are stuck in low-performing traditional public schools. Opponents argue charter schools siphon off money from district schools and their expansion would hurt large numbers of public school students.
More than 32,000 students appear on charter school waiting lists, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Of those, more than 23,000 applied to at least one charter school for the 2016–17 school year, while the remainder applied for admittance prior to March 2014.
In the closely monitored contest, Republicans, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, have largely backed charter expansion.
After 20 years, Massachusetts’s charter school law “is literally the only intervention that has demonstrated an ability to close the achievement gap between white students and African Americans,” Baker said in October during a Manhattan Institute speech in New York City. “Education reform has achieved the vast majority of the objectives it set out to achieve.”
Among Democrats, however, the issue has created a visible division. While Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have found allies with teachers unions in their opposition to the initiative, Education Secretary John King and former Education Secretary Arne Duncan — both of whom typically support school reform measures — want the cap lifted.
Noting that many of the Commonwealth’s charter schools have produced “extraordinary results,” Warren said in a statement she worried the ballot question would hurt school districts with tight budgets.
“Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind,” she said. “I hope that the legislature, the teachers and the parents can come together to find ways to make sure all kids in Massachusetts get a first-rate education without pitting groups against each other.”
Massachusetts voters, however, have been a little harder to judge. A poll released October 27 by The Boston Globe and Suffolk University found charter cap supporters and opponents tied at 45.4 percent, with 9 percent of respondents still undecided. It’s important to note that the poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percent.
A second poll that came out Friday, this one by the Western New England University Polling Institute, offers a sharply different outcome, with 52 percent of respondents saying they would vote no on Question 2 and 39 percent saying they’d vote to lift the cap. That poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The data become more interesting, however, when dissected by political affiliation and race. Though charter schools are often hailed as a bipartisan issue, poll results identify a clear partisan divide on the Massachusetts ballot measure, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to support a lift on the charter cap. Among Republicans, 50 percent said they planned to vote yes on Question 2, as did 44 percent of Democrats, according to the Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll. The Western New England University poll offered a similar split, with 62 percent of Republicans in favor of lifting the cap, compared with 32 percent of Democrats.
Among white voters, 43 percent said they wanted to lift the cap, compared with 58 percent of nonwhite voters, according to the Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll. While previous Western New England University polls identified racial gaps, that division became less apparent in Friday’s report.
In such a close, high-stakes contest, it’s hardly a surprise that money is pouring into the Commonwealth in a bid to influence public opinion. And if money alone could truly decide an election, pro-charter groups would win by a landslide.
Breaking previous Massachusetts campaign finance records, $38 million has been raised just on the charter cap ballot question, though interests for other Massachusetts ballot initiatives, most notably a campaign to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, have also shelled out unprecedented dollars. Much of that money has come from out-of-state interests.
Pro-charter groups have raised more than $24 million to lift the cap, according to Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance data. Of that, nearly $15 million came from a single source: Families for Excellent Schools, a New York City–based advocacy group that has invested heavily in school-choice initiatives in the nation’s largest city.
On the other side, local and national teachers unions have given out most of the money. Of the more than $14 million raised to stop charter school expansion in the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has given the most, $7.5 million, with national teachers unions following close behind: The National Education Association has given $5.4 million, and the American Federation of Teachers has given $2 million.
At The Boston Globe, the state’s largest newspaper, the editorial board endorsed the move to lift the charter school cap, arguing it would give low-income urban families the kind of educational choices “that wealthier suburban families simply take for granted.”
Despite all the political spin from pundits and television ads, the educational benefits from Massachusetts charter schools are pretty clear-cut, according to a September report from the left-leaning Brookings Institute.
Boston, the Commonwealth’s largest city, is at the center of the charter cap debate. Students who attend Boston charters do better academically than those who applied to a charter but failed to secure a seat. The results are particularly promising for economically disadvantaged students, English-language learners, special education students and children who had poor academic performance before enrolling in a charter school.
In the Commonwealth’s suburbs and rural areas, however, charter school students do the same as or worse than their peers at traditional public schools, Brookings researchers noted, yet the charter school cap currently constrains charter school growth only in the urban centers.