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Charter debate playing out in small races with big money

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State Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, faces a primary challenge from Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

While the partisans in Massachusetts' bitter charter debate are sinking millions of dollars into a high-profile ballot fight over whether to build more of the schools, they're also spending sizable sums on bids to shape the state Legislature.

Democrats for Education Reform, which favors charter schools, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which opposes them, have set aside $200,000 each to influence a handful of this week's Democratic primary races — sizable sums in often low-dollar contests.

Neither side is new to political spending. But their substantial outlays this election cycle underscore how much remains at stake even after voters decide the critical question, this November, of whether to lift the state cap on charter schools and allow for the creation of 12 new or expanded schools per year.


If voters approve the cap lift, the Legislature that convenes in January could alter the specifics of the law. Lawmakers also regularly consider other proposals critical to the operation of charters — measures addressing funding, teacher evaluation, and prickly questions about how charters discipline their students.

State Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat and sharp critic of charter schools, is often near the center of these legislative fights. And her Democratic primary has become a major battleground for the outside groups.

Democrats for Education Reform has spent about $100,000 to oust her, according to the latest campaign finance filings. And last week, she challenged the director of the group's Massachusetts chapter, Liam Kerr, to a debate.

"I said to myself, who is my real opponent here?" she said, sitting just a few feet from Kerr at the debate. "Who is spending more money than my opponent? I think my opposition is Democrats for Ed Reform, which is funded by dark money from New York — hedge fund managers."

Kerr had some pointed questions of his own: mainly about the tens of thousands of dollars that the Massachusetts Teachers Association union has spent backing Jehlen. "Did you call on the MTA to stop?" he asked at one point.


Charter schools are controversial because they are often not unionized and have a freer hand with budgets and curriculum. Critics contend that they drain resources from traditional public schools, while supporters say they provide a vital lifeline for children in poor neighborhoods.

Democrats for Education Reform and the teachers association both say they have other education issues they care about, from standardized testing to funding for preschool.

"We're not a charter-only organization," Kerr said in an interview. "There's a lot of different ways to stand up for kids."

It's clear, though, that charter schools are an animating concern in the proxy war the sides are fighting in the Democratic primaries, a war that spreads from Cape Cod to Roxbury.

In lower-profile House races, the spending can be quite small; in some cases, the teachers union isn't spending anything at all — it's just knocking on doors, without expenditures on mailings or signs.

But even a modest outlay can loom large in a small-scale race. In late August, Democrats for Education Reform reported that it had spent about $9,600 on a mailer for Chynah Tyler, a candidate to succeed retiring state Representative Gloria Fox in Roxbury.

Tyler's own campaign had spent about $10,700 as of a week before, the last time she was required to report. One of her opponents, Monica Cannon, had spent about $7,600 by that point. The teachers' union has spent almost twice as much supporting her.


The biggest spending, though, is in the Senate race pitting Jehlen, the Somerville Democrat, against Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung.

That battle has grown testy.

Leland Cheung.Josh Reynolds

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has spent about $115,000 to date, according to campaign finance filings, including thousands on a website attacking Cheung for backing charter schools and associating with Democrats for Education Reform, which the union calls "a national front for the ultraconservative effort to privatize public education."

Democrats for Education Reform has been supported by hedge fund executives and large foundations. But Kerr says said the group is pushing the "Obama education agenda." And he blasted the teachers' union for going negative in the campaign.

The combined $215,000 the two advocacy groups have spent on the Jehlen-Cheung race so far is more than the roughly $150,000 the candidates themselves had spent by late August, the last time they were required to disclose their campaign spending.

It's enough to make the outside spending a campaign issue in and of itself. Jehlen points out that Cheung was on record opposing charter expansion just a couple of years ago and suggests he came out in favor of the ballot initiative to accommodate Democrats for Education Reform.

Cheung denies that he was trying to curry favor with the group, saying he backs the specific proposal before voters in November because it offers a preference to charter school proposals in the lowest-performing districts.


He also criticizes Jehlen and her fellow legislators for providing inadequate funding for all public schools, charter and traditional alike. "People need to be talking about the Legislature's failure to invest in education," he said.

Before long, the outside groups will know whether their efforts made a difference. The primary is Thursday. In November, voters will weigh in on lifting the cap on charter schools.

Then it's a new legislative session, battles over education policy, and come election time in 2018, if the past is any guide, the sides will be trading campaign mailings — and rhetorical jabs — once again.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.