A simple yes-or-no question being put to Massachusetts voters next month—whether a cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state should be lifted—has turned into a national political battle between charter advocates and those who oppose the publicly funded but independently run schools.
Over $33 million from both the national teachers’ unions and out-of-state charter-advocacy groups and individual donors has come pouring into Massachusetts. Both sides have launched expansive campaigns to lobby potential voters door to door to vote their way on the ballot measure, known as Question 2.
How Massachusetts voters come down on the ballot measure could signal future odds for the expansion of charter schools nationally, one education expert said.
“I think people are inclined to focus on this ballot measure to see what the political climate is like for charter schools,” said Paul Reville, a professor of education policy at Harvard University and a former secretary of education for the state.
“If we have difficulty in raising the cap in a state with such high-performing charter schools, what does that say for the prospects of more charter schools in the places that have not done as well?”
Compared with many other states, Massachusetts has strict limits on the number of charter schools that can open. Although the state has not hit its statewide cap of 120 charters, some areas—such as Boston—have reached separate, regional limits.
And the state has additional barriers to charter expansion, including limits to how much of a district’s budget can be directed to charters—it can’t exceed 9 percent in most districts. That budget restriction, however, will rise to 18 percent by 2017 in the lowest-performing districts.
Question 2 would allow the state to approve 12 new charter schools a year.
The ballot measure marks the end of a full-court press—backed by Gov. Charlie Baker—that began last year to lift the charter school cap. In addition to the ballot initiative, a lawsuit and legislation were aimed at raising the cap.
But the bill fizzled in the last legislative session, and a Suffolk County Superior Court judge recently dismissed the lawsuit, leaving the ballot initiative as the last option for charter advocates to prevail in easing limits on expansion.
The campaign for the ballot measure seemed to be going charter proponents’ way eight months ago but has since flipped, said Steve Koczela, the director of the MassInc Polling Group. A recent poll by his company for WBUR, an NPR affiliate in Boston, found that 52 percent of the state’s voters plan to vote against raising the charter cap, compared with 41 percent who said they would vote yes.
As he dug deeper into the latest polling results, Koczela said he found some telling divisions, including a huge gap between how Democrats and Republications view the issue.
Republicans support raising the cap 2-to-1, he said, but the reverse is true for Democrats.
“We’ve been polling on this for a long time, and we haven’t seen a party split [on charter schools] until quite recently, and now the party split is quite pronounced,” he said.
Racial divisions on the issue are also stark, Koczela said, with 40 percent of white voters in favor of expanding charters, while 53 percent of nonwhite voters support expansion.
“Nonwhite voters have been consistently more supportive of charters than white voters,” he said. “That means there’s a divide in the Democratic Party, since a significant part of nonwhite voters are in the Democratic Party.”
Daphne Lawson, whose two children attend a Boston charter school, is a paid organizer for Families for Excellent Schools, a New York City-based pro-charter advocacy group known for organizing large rallies with Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network. In her work canvassing voters, she said she has seen a split within the black community.
"[The] divide has been more along the lines of older blacks, who are more loyal to the district system,” said Lawson, who is African-American. “My family are educators as well, my mother my father, I get it. You have your job and your tenure and your pension, and then here comes this charter movement that threatens to usurp that.”
Lawson sees the fight to raise the cap as a personal one.
Dissatisfied with the levels of academic rigor in traditional Boston schools, Lawson started sending her children to KIPP Boston. Both are in middle school and will soon age out of the KIPP system, which does not have a high school in Boston and can’t open one because of the cap.
But activist parents on the other side of the issue are also campaigning, including Deborah Gesualdo, a music teacher at Linden STEAM Academy, a district school in Malden, Mass.
She has been volunteering a lot of time to the “vote no” campaign, and she’s not the only one. Every teacher in her school building is involved, she said.
“Whether they’ve canvassed, whether they’ve phone-banked, whether they are active in educating people on social media. … Everyone is active in some way on the campaign,” Gesualdo said.
Both sides are also drawing in political heavyweights.
Elizabeth Warren, the state’s popular Democratic senator, came out against lifting the cap, as did Martin Walsh, Boston’s generally charter-friendly mayor.
Proponents of raising the cap include Gov. Baker, a Republican, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who donated money to support passage of the ballot question.
But as a parent and a teacher, Lawson and Gesualdo are key surrogates for their respective campaigns.
“They have a really slick ad game,” Barbara Madeloni, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said of the pro-charter groups and their TV commercials. “But it’s not going to carry the same weight as your son’s teacher knocking on the door to talk about ballot-question number 2.”
Teachers’ unions are generally against charter school expansion nationally, and they tend to be the strongest and most organized force against charter growth.
A campaign called Save Our Public Schools, which is largely funded by the MTA and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, as well as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, has bankrolled the “vote no” campaign.
But it has not raised nearly as much as charter school advocates—$12.5 million compared with $20.5 million, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Most of the money spent in support of the ballot measure has come from the Great Schools Massachusetts campaign, whose largest donor is Families for Excellent Schools.
The extra spending is needed to counter the political prowess of the teachers’ unions, said Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.
“That’s why we have such a restrictive cap, because of the power of the teachers’ union,” he said. “The people contributing to our campaign are simply leveling the playing field.”
After legislation to lift the cap failed, and the lawsuit stalled, Kenen said everything has come down to the question on November’s ballot.
“If this vote is a no,” he said, “it’s going to be a major setback for the charter school movement in Massachusetts.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Pitched Battle Rages in Bid to Lift Massachusetts’ Cap on Charters