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shirley leung

Why it’s so hard to vote yes on Question 2

 Charter school backers rallied on Boston Common by the State House.
Charter school backers rallied on Boston Common by the State House.(DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

Who would’ve thought that it would be easier for us to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts than to lift the cap on charter schools.

That’s what the polls are showing, and it’s fitting in this topsy-turvy election season that we have a local ballot question on education that has everyone torn when the answer should be clear.

Study after study show that charter schools in Massachusetts are the real deal. They were created two decades ago so that kids, largely black and Hispanic, from poor urban school districts could have the same access to high-quality education as their white counterparts in wealthy suburbs.

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The results have been unequivocal. Researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have found that students in charter schools in our urban districts (think Boston, Chelsea, Lynn) outperform their traditional public schools peers in reading and math, or SAT scores. Their success comes largely from extended hours, longer school years, and more accountability.

So what’s the problem?

Money. The debate over Question 2 — which would allow up to 12 new charter schools a year statewide — spirals out of control and gets so toxic over where the money comes from and where it goes. There are questions about who’s really behind charter schools and how the initiative could ruin the credit ratings of cities like Boston.

Let’s start with Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure why the Vermont senator gets to weigh in on what happens in Massachusetts public schools, but he will have you believe that charters here are run by for-profit firms with ties to Wall Street.

Sanders needs to do his homework on this. That might be true in other states, but not here. Our charter schools are nonprofits.

Then there’s this whole issue about how charters drain money from traditional schools.

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Proponents of Question 2 — which include Governor Charlie Baker — explain that whatever public money allocated to educate a student follows him or her to the charter. Simple enough, but here’s where it gets complicated. When a new charter opens and hundreds of students enroll, districts can’t adjust the size their teaching staff and buildings overnight. The state anticipated that school systems would need help and built a reimbursement formula into the law.

But in recent years, the state has not been fully funding that reimbursement, forcing cities to make up the difference from their own budgets. Boston’s Marty Walsh — among other urban mayors — is voting no on Question 2. That’s right, the mayors of cities where students are supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of charter schools are against lifting the cap.

Walsh, who supports charters in general, is a compelling opponent when he tells everyone how the state has stiffed the city $48 million over the last three fiscal years in charter school funding. The mayor asserts that figure would grow potentially into the hundreds of millions of dollars if the ballot question passes.

This week’s leak of e-mails from credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service further bolstered Walsh’s concerns.

Moody’s warned that the ballot measure, if passed, could threaten the bond ratings of Boston and three other Massachusetts cities. A full report would be done after Tuesday’s election.

So here’s why the Moody’s e-mail might be the November surprise that’s much ado about nothing. The ballot question calls for the state to open or expand as many as a dozen charter schools a year, with priority given to underperforming districts. That leaves a lot of room to interpretation of how many more charter seats can be added annually.

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Boston has about 9,250 students in 25 charter schools, or about 14.4 percent of enrollment.

On average, the city has opened one charter a year in the two decades since the state created these alternatives to traditional schools.

At that pace and with some 12,000 kids on the waiting list, it would take Boston roughly 25 years to meet demand.

The city is nearing its cap, which means nearly 4,000 spots could become available over the next decade.

As imperfect as Question 2 is, this is why I’m voting yes. It’s not a referendum against traditional public schools or their teachers. Massachusetts has among the best schools in the country.

These kids who are the waiting list — about 32,000 in total across the state — don’t have the luxury of time. If they live in a district with poor schools, they can’t wait for their traditional schools to be fixed.

It’s a point that has become clear to local banking honcho Chad Gifford who has worked to improve Boston Public Schools for three decades. The former chairman of Bank of America Corp. is still at it as the chairman of the board of BPE, a Boston nonprofit that runs the in-district Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School and Dearborn STEM Academy.

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He still believes that struggling schools can be turned around, but change is too slow.

“There must be some urgency,” he said. “Kids don’t have time.”

Supporters of Question 2 have picked an aggressive number of new charter schools — which is giving opponents the ammunition to paint a doomsday scenario. But the rigorous process in which the state selects new charters will remain largely unchanged. I don’t expect the spigot to open given that the state has approved on average three charters a year since 2011.

Given the contentious debate, I’ve got to think the state will be judicious. Beacon Hill is also on notice, and lawmakers need to keep up their end of the bargain and once again fully fund charter reimbursements.

But the biggest shame about the fight over charter schools is the more than $33 million both sides have collectively spent to argue Question 2.

How many more kids could have been put in pre-K? How many more computer labs could have been built? How many more after-school programs could have been funded?


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.