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State Democratic Party opposes charter school expansion

The state Democratic Party has sounded a loud note of opposition to a ballot initiative that would increase the number of charter schools in the state, its committee members voting nearly unanimously for a resolution harshly critical of the charter-school movement.

At a state party committee meeting in Lawrence on Tuesday night, the resolution encountered just a smattering of opposition during the voice vote, several attendees said. Pro-teachers-union committee members spent days lobbying for support, while charter school advocates had hoped to block the measure from passing.

The November ballot question, which would allow up to 12 charter schools to be approved every year in low-performing districts, has sharply divided Democrats. But the committee was “close to unanimous” in its vote, state party chairman Thomas McGee, a state senator from Lynn, said on Wednesday.


“It was clearly the will of the body, once the resolution was presented,” said McGee, who is personally opposed to raising the charter school cap but adopted a publicly hands-off approach to the resolution.

Toward the end of a meeting that attendees described as lengthy and not air-conditioned, state AFL-CIO president Steven A. Tolman, a former state senator, introduced the resolution, which was strongly backed by teachers’ unions.

Keri Lorenzo, state director of Families for Excellent Schools, spoke in opposition, but received little support.

The party’s staunch opposition to charter schools appears to put it at odds with President Obama, who has supported charter-school expansion, along with many state legislators.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, an avowed charters supporter, on Wednesday reiterated his opposition to the ballot question, saying that the city’s school system cannot afford to have more state aid diverted to additional charter schools.

“I believe it’s no — I’m strongly opposed to the ballot question, Question 2,” Walsh said.

“Charters schools are not bad; they are not our enemies,’’ he added. “The enemy is that this ballot question doesn’t give us a funding source and that money is going to have to come from somewhere.”


That stance splits Walsh from his regular ally, Governor Charlie Baker, who has led the push in favor of the question. Two of Baker’s top political advisers are helping steer the campaign in favor of Question 2.

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. Both sides have embarked on expensive television advertising campaigns.

The resolution adopted by the party states that “more than $400 million in taxpayer money was diverted to charter schools statewide last year from local school districts” and that charters “use hyper-disciplinary policies and suspensions for minor infractions to push out students.”

The measure also charges that “the Question 2 campaign is funded and governed by hidden money provided by Wall Street executives and hedge fund managers.”

Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts/Yes on 2, said in an e-mail, “We’re thrilled that public charter schools have such strong bipartisan support from elected leaders on both sides of the aisle, and are part of the recently ratified national platform of the Democratic Party. Providing great public education options for the kids and parents that need them most is a goal shared by leaders of both parties.”


Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group, assailed the vote. In a statement late Tuesday, state director Liam Kerr said, “Tonight, a small group of state Democratic Party insiders hijacked a meeting and passed a resolution with little warning and no debate or discussion. . . . The Massachusetts party insiders are so out of step they won’t even listen to those who stand with low-income families and families of color desperate for a better education for their children.”

Opponents of the ballot measure, though, hailed the vote as a defense of traditional public schools.

In an e-mailed statement, NAACP New England Area conference president Juan Cofield, who also chairs the Campaign to Save Our Public Schools, said, “We applaud the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee for joining the campaign to save our public schools and opposing Question 2. They join more than 70 local communities and a broad coalition of families, parents, educators, students, and local leaders who understand that Question 2 is bad for our schools.”

Still, the outcome left some party members vexed.

“I like to trust the voters, as long as they’re well-educated and informed by both sides, and I think this whole situation circumvented that whole process, and it frustrated me to no end,” said Marsha Finkelstein, a committee member and chair of the Salem Democratic committee.

James Vaznis contributed to this report. O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.