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Ballot question on charter schools divides Democrats

Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, is the driving force behind the charter school ballot question. The initiative is exposing some divisions in the state Democratic Party.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

A ballot proposal to expand charter schools across the state could drive a further wedge between Democratic Party factions when state committee members gather Tuesday night in Lawrence.

Pro-teachers union members of the state committee have been working to line up support for a resolution putting the party on record in opposition to a November ballot question boosting the number of charter schools, a thorny political question for those working to pacify blocs within the party. It was unclear late Monday whether leading party officials would permit the resolution to come to a vote.

“The charter school issue shows a genuine disagreement within the party, that there’s no consensus,” said one party insider, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal Democratic dynamics. “And both sides are really intractable. The notion of a middle ground on charter schools within the Democratic Party, or among the people that are going to be showing up to this meeting, it just doesn’t exist.”

Charter schools have long been a contentious issue among Democrats, forcing activists to take sides between two traditional party constituencies: minority and low-income families versus teachers unions.


If passed, the ballot measure, Question 2, would lift the statutory cap on the number of charter schools in the state. It is strongly opposed by teachers’ unions, who argue that charters drain money from traditional public schools. Proponents say it could boost opportunities for students in struggling communities.

A Suffolk University poll in May found that half of the state’s voters supported lifting the cap on charters in districts with the poorest test scores, with 33 percent opposed.

Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, is the measure’s leading proponent, standing last month in a midsummer downpour outside the State House in support of the ballot initiative. Two of Baker’s top political advisers, expected to play senior roles if he runs for a second term, are helping steer the procharter effort.


“This is one of those issues where the Republicans can use divisions within the Democratic Party to their benefit,” said Stonehill College political scientist Peter Ubertaccio. “I think there’s no downside to what the governor is attempting to do.”

A spokeswoman for state Democratic Party chair Thomas McGee, a Lynn state senator, said McGee was not available for comment.

The state party confab comes as national Democrats are working to heal fissures opened during the grueling presidential primary between the nominee, Hillary Clinton, and US Senator Bernie Sanders.

In Massachusetts and nationally, top Democrats have shown an uneasiness with education policy and charter schools. Clinton was booed last month during a national teachers union conference after making remarks seemingly supportive of charter schools.

Depending on its wording, the resolution, if adopted, probably would put Massachusetts Democrats in a more stridently anticharter stance than the national party.

The meeting comes as Massachusetts Democrats grope their way through the type of power vacuum they have not experienced since before Deval Patrick, himself a charter supporter, was elected governor in 2006. No Democrat has emerged as the prime challenger to Baker and, party insiders say, even the behind-the-scenes power-brokering can at times seem rudderless.

Bill Dooling, a committee member from Holliston and Vietnam veteran who campaigned for John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, circulated an e-mail to members last month ripping a procharters group for hiring the same ad firm that produced the “Swift Boat” ads that smeared Kerry’s service in the war.


“That’s what prompted me to write to the state committee people,’’ Dooling, a Boston teacher before serving in Vietnam, said Monday. “I assume the tactics will be similar.”

A vocal critic of the ballot measure, Dooling said he would be willing to introduce the opposition’s resolution at Tuesday’s meeting.

“If nobody else does, I’ll do it,” he said. “I think the state committee should be on record. People should take a stand on this.”

Marsha Finkelstein, a committee member and the chair of the Salem Democratic committee, said she had heard from one of the organizers of Tuesday’s resolution.

“They’re calling the state committee, they’re really trying to do something, I’m not sure what,” said Finkelstein, who said she was “definitely going to vote yes” on Question 2.

“I really want to see all of our children have access to the best schools for their needs,” Finkelstein said.

Several committee members said the structure of Tuesday’s meeting could render the debate moot. Its primary purpose is for the committee to pick the state’s Democratic electors for the Electoral College, and some procharter committee members questioned whether the resolution would be permissible because it could conflict with the state party platform.

Further, the elector selection process, party veterans said, can prove long and time-consuming. On what is expected to be a hot summer night in Lawrence, some members may leave by the time the meeting agenda works its way to the opportunity for new resolutions, depriving resolution backers of a quorum.


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.