Massachusetts is in the middle of its most expensive ballot measure fight ever—over the expansion of charter schools. Dark money has poured in from outside the state pushing a yes vote on Question 2, which would dramatically increase the number of new charter schools allowed each year, while unions in the state and the national unions they’re affiliated with have had to spend millions fighting back. More than 200 local school committees and 30 mayors have opposed Question 2. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is opposed. So is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
So what’s it all about?
Charter school advocates like to frame their position as being somehow about civil rights, but let’s put it this way: you’ve got the Walmart Waltons pouring millions into charter expansion vs. the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives opposing it. Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, is a leader in the fight against Question 2. He writes that Massachusetts charter schools:
… don't serve students with serious special needs. They are not accountable to the local taxpayers who must pay for them. And many charter schools have been cited by the state for using hyper-disciplinary policies that target black and disabled students at shockingly disproportionate rates.
You won't hear these facts from the billionaire backers of Question 2, who have a long history of claiming charter schools will "save" poor students of color, in an obvious effort to appeal to white progressives. Yes, there are individual schools that are falling short, and we must invest in them. What we must not do is allow 2016 to go down in history as the year Massachusetts cemented into law a separate and inherently unequal school system.
If Question 2 passes, it will perpetuate de facto segregation by siphoning vital public education funds off to privately-run schools that only educate a select group of students.
When he talks about siphoning funds, he’s not kidding.
Question 2 would threaten bond ratings for Boston and three other cities, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Why is that? Nancy Grossman, a municipal treasurer, explains how this siphoning works:
For simplicity’s sake, imagine a neighborhood school with 1,000 students and a $15,000,000 budget, or $15,000 per child. Assume that a very conservative one-third of this budget might go to relatively fixed costs for maintenance, debt service, basic administration, custodial staff and other costs that don’t vary significantly with student population. Thus, $5 million goes to fixed costs, $10 million to variable expenses such as instructional costs — $10,000 per child. If 200 students “choice-out” for charter schools and take with them perhaps $13,000 each (factoring in temporary state tuition offsets which this year average just 11 percent of assessed tuition) or $2.6 million, that leaves $12.4 million to run the school. Five million is still needed for fixed costs; $7.4 million is left for instructional needs. Dividing this amount by the 800 remaining students equals $9,250 left for instructional needs and other non-fixed costs, or $750 less per student.
And, since charters educate proportionally fewer special-needs children, district schools shoulder a higher percentage of costs to educate these kids, but with fewer dollars per child available to do so.
Author and former teacher Jonathan Kozol argues that the siphoning goes beyond dollars:
… an even greater loss may be the draining-off of parents who no longer have a stake in advocating for the schools from which they’ve chosen to depart. Their advocacy efforts take place in a new and more select domain from that moment on. Who will stand up for the children at the schools they’ve left behind?
Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy. What this represents is a state-supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters. It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.
It’s significant that this fight is happening in one of the states with the very best public schools in the country—if opponents of public education can win in Massachusetts, it will be that much harder to fight back elsewhere. If you’re a Massachusetts voter, please vote no on Question 2. And wherever you live, pass the word on to your friends in Massachusetts.