Massachusetts will keep its status as one of the more restrictive states when it comes to the expansion of charter schools after voters last week solidly rejected a bid to raise the cap on the number of charters allowed to open.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, voters soundly defeated a ballot measure that sought to change the state’s constitution to allow for the creation of a special district to take over low-performing schools.
In both cases, voters overwhelmingly disagreed with their Republican governors. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker was a strong proponent of the charter school expansion, while in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal campaigned for the statewide district in personal terms, calling it a “moral” duty to act on behalf of students in low-performing schools.
Both ballot measures attracted big money and national attention, but particularly so in Massachusetts, where teachers’ union leaders are claiming a major victory for grassroots organizing.
The ballot question to expand charters in Massachusetts brought a bright national spotlight as it sought to allow the state to approve 12 new charter schools each year.
Millions of dollars poured in from out-of-state organizations and donors to sway voters on the issue, while political heavyweights such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in on the initiative.
The race was close up until the end, but on Election Day, voters swung decisively toward “no” on Question 2. Sixty-two percent cast their ballots to block the measure, while 38 percent voted in favor, according to the Associated Press.
Those votes did not come cheap. Campaigns for and against Question 2 together raised nearly $42 million, with groups that favored the measure bringing in more than $26 million, according to the most recent campaign finance records.
Boots on the Ground
But the bigger war chest didn’t pay off for charter advocates.
“It’s a really big win for grassroots organizing,” said Barbara Madeloni, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which led the effort against the ballot question. “We had a ground game, we had conversations, we had students talking to voters, we had educators knocking on doors. And when we knocked on those doors and said ‘I’m an educator and I want to talk about Question 2,’ the welcome was profound.”
Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, acknowledged it was hard for charter advocates to match the unions’ on-the-ground presence.
“We’re so far from having the numbers in our schools necessary to build a strong, statewide grassroots efforts that can match the teachers’ unions,” said Kenen.
The statewide cap on charter schools is set at 120 campuses under current law—which is a fairly restrictive cap compared to many other states’. Even though Massachusetts hasn’t hit that ceiling of 120 schools yet, some areas—such as Boston—have reached separate, regional limits.
Despite the defeat of Question 2 and other unsuccessful efforts to expand charters, Kenen said his group’s internal polling showed that people believe charters were doing a good job educating students.
“I think the debate got framed as a false choice between charters and districts,” he said. “Voters thought they had to choose between charter schools and district schools, and faced with that choice, they didn’t want to do harm to the existing system.”
Although elated by the outcome, music teacher and MTA member Deborah Gesualdo said she’s trying to practice what she’s telling her students about how to conduct themselves after a contentious election.
“One thing that I’ve reminded myself along the way is that the parents that were involved on the Yes on 2 side, we need to be really respectful of them,” said Gesaldo, who teaches at Linden STEAM Academy, a district school in Malden, Mass. “I don’t believe in gloating when your side prevails. Those parents obviously had some concerns, and I’m hoping we can address those.”
Formidable Ga. Opposition
In Georgia, where 60 percent of voters cast their ballots against the measure to set up a statewide turnaround district, defeat seemed likely based on recent polling.
The measure drew formidable opposition, including an unlikely coalition of teachers’ unions, school boards, district administrators, the state PTA, and some conservative Republicans. The governor, the measure’s chief proponent, had allies that included Democrats and Republicans, as well as national education reform groups such as 50CAN.
More than $7 million had been raised through early November by both sides. Had it been approved, the so-called Opportunity School District would have been modeled in part on Louisiana’s Recovery School District and Tennessee’s Achievement School District.
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A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as In Mass., Voters Shun More Charter Schools