Metro

Voters split on charter schools, favor legal pot

An early ballot envelope.
Elise Amendola/Associated Press
An early ballot envelope.

Massachusetts voters support a ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana and are deadlocked on one that would allow for more charter schools in the state, according to a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll.

The survey, conducted just two weeks before Election Day, shows likely voters backing marijuana legalization 49 to 42 percent and splitting on charter expansion 45.4 percent to 45.4 percent, with 9 percent of voters undecided.

“ ‘Razor thin’ isn’t thin enough,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, reaching for a phrase to describe the tightness of the charter contest. “It’s just amazing.”

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Question 2 would allow for 12 new or expanded charter schools per year, and supporters and opponents have poured millions into television advertising — making it the most expensive ballot-question air war in the country, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism group.

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The opposition’s advertisements argue that charters endanger funding for traditional public schools. But the poll suggests the campaign has had limited success convincing voters.

Just 37 percent of voters said they believe “charter schools drain money from traditional public schools,” while 41 percent said they have “no significant impact on the budgets of traditional public schools” and 20 percent are undecided.

Still, the survey suggests the “no” side has made gains in recent months, particularly among Democrats, independents, and women, erasing a 17-point deficit in a Suffolk/Globe poll from May.

The poll also found voters favor, 62 to 25 percent, a ballot question that would mandate eggs and meat sold in Massachusetts come from animals that are not tightly confined. A measure that would allow an additional slot parlor in Massachusetts is failing 57 to 30 percent, according to the survey.

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The poll of 500 likely voters, conducted Oct. 24-Oct. 26, has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

There are currently 78 charter schools in Massachusetts.Charters have a freer hand with budgets, curriculum, and hiring than traditional public schools and are frequently not unionized.

Mark Ostow, a Cambridge photographer who participated in the Suffolk/Globe survey, said he is leaning toward supporting the charter expansion measure. He said he has some concerns about charter schools’ fiscal impact on traditional schools but believes charters can be a catalyst for improving public education across the board.

“When charter schools do well, they sort of force public schools to be a little more competitive — they have to compete for the same students,” he said. “It ups the public schools’ game, in some way.”

But Melissa Wiley, 37, a stay-at-home mother in Beverly, said she worries about the financial drain on traditional schools. “I don’t know what the charters are really getting, as opposed to the public schools,” she said, but added that “since my son goes to a public school, I’m going to be more opposed” to charters.

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When students leave traditional public schools for charters, they each take thousands of dollars in aid with them under state rules that say the money must follow the children to their new schools. Charter advocates say this system is fundamentally fair, while critics say traditional schools still have to cover overhead expenses — from teacher salaries to heating bills — when they lose students to charters.

On the recreational marijuana question, the survey suggests the legalization campaign has built a small lead among likely voters, improving from earlier in the year. Paleologos, the pollster, said women appear to be growing more comfortable with the idea — splitting evenly on the question, rather than opposing it as they did in an earlier Suffolk survey.

Karla Metterle, 32, a stay-at-home mother in Bolton who answered the poll this week, supports legalization. “I think a lot of times people use marijuana for medicinal purposes and it eases their discomfort significantly,” she said.

Medical marijuana is already legal in Massachusetts. But national polling shows the perceived medicinal properties of the drug are a leading reason for the broad swing in public opinion, over the last decade, toward full legalization.

The Suffolk/Globe survey also found voters are not particularly concerned about potential harmful effects of the drug.

Forty percent of likely voters think marijuana is safer than alcohol, 35 percent say it is about as dangerous, and 13 percent say it is more dangerous. Only 32 percent say marijuana is a gateway to opioids, while 53 percent say it is not.

Voters do not believe legalization will have much impact on their consumption of the drug. Just 15 percent say it will make them more likely to buy marijuana products, while 16 percent say it will make them less likely, and two-thirds say it will make no difference.

The survey also asked voters to rate local political figures. It shows that Governor Charlie Baker remains broadly popular, with 69 percent saying they approve of the job he is doing and just 10 percent saying they disapprove.

Supporters of the charter school referendum are trying to convert that popularity into “yes” votes by featuring the governor in an advertisement that began airing this week. Baker, speaking to the camera, argues that children in struggling districts deserve more choices.

Paleologos said the governor is taking a political risk in playing such a public role in the charter fight, given that the contest is so tight and voters who can’t make up their minds about referendums tend to revert to the status quo and vote “no.”

“If the public concludes, ‘Well, you’re a nice guy, Charlie, but I still don’t want more charter schools,’ he potentially could be viewed as not having the electoral clout” that his soaring polling numbers might suggest, Paleologos said.

The Suffolk survey shows Massachusetts voters prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in the presidential race by a wide margin, 57 to 25 percent, with Libertarian Gary Johnson taking 4 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein pulling 3 percent.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has a commanding lead on former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling in a hypothetical 2018 match-up, 58 percent to 24 percent, according to the survey.

Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe