Voter support for more charter schools in Massachusetts appears to be weak, according to a new Boston Globe poll, highlighting a politically risky situation for charter school supporters if they pursue a ballot question.
The poll found that 47 percent of respondents opposed raising a state cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in Massachusetts, compared with 43 percent who favor such a change.
The results mean that charter school advocates would have to launch a compelling campaign to convince voters that opening more charter schools would be beneficial to students, said John Della Volpe, founder and chief executive officer for SocialSphere Inc., which conducted the poll for the Globe.
“They have their work cut out for them,” Della Volpe said. “What I mean by that is they would need to make the case why changing the current situation would result in significant more benefits for children.”
Resistance to raising the cap, Della Volpe said, could hinge on another significant finding in the poll: 72 percent of respondents said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the quality of education provided by their local school systems.
A defeat at the ballot box could deliver a crushing blow to charter school advocates, even possibly dooming future attempts to convince the Legislature to raise the cap. That’s because weary legislators could point to the referendum results and say they don’t want to betray the wishes of voters.
Such a scenario has partly motivated advocates to scuttle previous efforts to pursue a ballot question and instead focus their limited energy and resources on lobbying the Legislature to change state law — a strategy that worked effectively 4½ years ago.
But charter school advocates announced last month that they were exploring the idea of a ballot question for 2016, after suffering a devastating loss this summer in the state Senate, which refused to support the latest attempt to raise the cap.
Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, which is weighing a ballot question campaign, said he was surprised by the opposition. He said the poll results ran contradictory to polls conducted by his organization and other groups in recent years that showed favorable support for an increase in the cap.
For instance, MassINC Polling Group released a poll last year that found voters in 10 cities, including Worcester, Springfield and Lawrence, supported raising the cap by nearly a 3-1 margin, he said.
But he added, “We will certainly be weighing the risks and benefits of a ballot question as we consider to pursue it or not.”
Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools are intended to be laboratories of innovation. Seventy-one operate with full independence from local school systems, while 10 run in partnership with a local school system.
Charter schools rarely employ unionized teachers and often have extended school days. Many have among the highest MCAS scores in the state, but a handful have closed because of low achievement or financial problems.
Controversy has long surrounded the funding of charter schools. Under state law, every time a student enrolls in a charter school, thousands of dollars in state aid are diverted from his or her hometown district to cover educational costs at the charter school.
Because of that, state law caps the amount of money local districts can spend on charter school tuition, which effectively limits the number of students who can enroll and ultimately the number of charter schools that can operate.
In most districts, no more than 9 percent of their spending can go to charter schools, and in the state’s lowest-performing districts, such as Boston and Lawrence, as much as 18 percent of the budget can be spent on charter tuition.
Charter school advocates have not yet decided what kind of lift in the charter school cap they might pursue, although they tend to target increases only for urban areas.
Opponents say advocates should scrap a ballot question altogether.
“It’s not a simple sell that charter schools are better for our students,” said Megan Wolf, a Jamaica Plain mother and member of Quality Education for Every Student, a grass-roots parent group that opposes raising the cap. “I think people believe in the potential of real public education. They are not willing to abandon their local school system.”
The poll also posed questions on next month’s electoral primaries. In the governor’s race, Martha Coakley maintains a commanding lead on the Democratic ticket, garnering 45 percent support. Trailing her were Steve Grossman at 24 percent and Don Berwick at 10 percent.
The prevailing candidate will likely square off with Republican Charlie Baker.
The primary races for the other statewide posts — lieutenant governor, treasurer, and attorney general — remain wide open, with most voters expressing no preference for a specific candidate, even with less than three weeks to go before the Sept. 9 primary. In the lieutenant governor’s race, for instance, 75 percent of respondents were undecided.
“All three of them are nail-biters,” Della Volpe said.
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