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Charters used to enjoy bipartisan support. Not anymore

A sign against a ballot question to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts was seen at the McKinley South End Academy last month.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file

BROOKLINE — Massachusetts’ 23-year-old charter school experiment has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Just a few months ago, polls showed Democrats and Republicans alike supported an upcoming ballot measure that would allow for more of the schools.

But recent surveys show Democrats turning against the question — breaking the broad consensus on charters and threatening to stall one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to reshape public education.

A new WBUR poll out Wednesday morning has the ballot measure failing by 11 points overall, with Democrats opposing it 64 to 30 percent.

“It didn’t used to be a partisan issue, really,” said pollster Steve Koczela, who conducted the survey for WBUR and has worked for charter advocates in the past. “Now, it is.”


In recent weeks, with Election Day approaching, a handful of prominent Democrats like US Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Martin J. Walsh have come out in opposition to Question 2, which would allow for the creation or expansion of 12 charter schools per year.

But political operatives say that high-profile opposition does not appear to be the driving force in liberal voters’ mounting worry over charter schools, which have a freer hand with budgets and curriculum than traditional public schools and are frequently not unionized.

Instead, they point to a teachers-union-backed “No on 2” campaign that has hammered home a simple message — that charters drain traditional public schools of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The opposition of over 180 school committees and hundreds of individual teachers has been powerful as well, they say.

That’s evident in places like left-leaning Brookline, where blue-and-yellow “We Trust and Support Brookline Teachers” signs are on lawns all over town.

The placards refer to an ongoing contract fight, not the Question 2 campaign. But Democrat Anne-Marie Codur, a Tufts University researcher who sends her son to Brookline High School, said conversations with local teachers played a central role in building her opposition to charter expansion.


“I didn’t know, at the start, [where I would land on the issue],” said Codur, standing in her doorway on a recent morning. “But I read, I listened to NPR, and I talked to educators here — I know many teachers here, and they are the ones who really made up my mind.”

Of course, it’s not just Democrats who are talking with their children’s teachers about charter expansion. But for liberals, concerns about Question 2 carry a particular resonance because they bump up against some core beliefs.

Codur, who has planted a “No on 2” yard sign between her “Clinton-Kaine” and “Joe Kennedy for Congress” signs, cast her opposition as a defense of public education itself. And for many Democrats worried about the growing influence of “dark money” in politics, the flood of anonymous donations to the “Yes on 2” campaign — some donors can keep their names concealed by law — has hit a nerve.

Democrats make up just one-third of the electorate, with more than half of voters independent and about one in 10 Republican. But Democrats’ sharp turn against the question seems to be having a real effect on its overall chances.

In April, a Western New England University Polling Institute survey of 497 registered voters in Massachusetts found 45 percent of the Democrats polled supported charter expansion and 34 percent were opposed.


By the end of September and beginning of October, a survey by the same group found just 29 percent of Democrats in support and 54 percent opposed. The gap was even wider among likely Democratic voters, a more select group than registered Democrats.

The Western New England poll had Republican and independent support for charters declining, too, reflecting an overall tightening of the race. But those shifts, if substantial, were not as dramatic. Overall, 47 percent of likely voters opposed Question 2 and 34 percent supported it.

Even the one recent public poll that had the “yes” side winning showed Democrats opposed by a small margin.

Massachusetts Democrats’ shift against the ballot measure puts them at odds with the national leaders of their party. Both President Obama and Hillary Clinton are charter school supporters, something organizers of the “Yes on 2” campaign frequently invoke in their efforts to win over liberals.

And pro-charter strategists remain sanguine, overall, about their chances with Democrats and the broader electorate.

A recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity showed supporters of the ballot initiative are outspending opponents on television advertisements by a two-to-one margin, in what has emerged as the most expensive ballot-question air war in the country.

Many of those ads dispute the opposition’s claim that charters are a financial drag on traditional public schools, citing newspaper editorials that say otherwise. Strategists say their polling shows the effort is working.

And in recent days, the “Yes” campaign has opened a new front: appealing directly to the conscience of white, suburban voters with a new ad that asks them to imagine what it would be like to have a child trapped in a struggling urban school.


“If you like your public school, Question 2 won’t affect you,” a narrator says, as a picture of a white family fades to images of black and Latino families. “But for kids stuck in failing school districts, Question 2 will let parents choose something better — and give all our kids hope.”

Massachusetts charter schools have performed well with low-income, minority students. A recent Brookings Institution report found that “test-score gains produced by Boston’s charters are some of the largest that have ever been documented for an at-scale educational intervention,” better than the Head Start early education program, for instance, or a small-class-size experiment in Tennessee.

That explains why one crucial bloc of the Democratic electorate — nonwhite voters — has consistently been in favor of charter school expansion in Massachusetts, even as white Democrats have begun to oppose Question 2 in greater numbers.

Reginald Gay, a black retiree who sent three of his four children to Boston charter schools, said they are “much better” than the traditional public schools in the city. “Most charter schools,” he said, eating breakfast at Brothers restaurant in Mattapan Square on a recent morning, “the children are pretty much guaranteed to go to college.”

Charter proponents say they dread the idea of black and Latino, inner-city families voting for more of the schools, only to be swamped by white, suburban voters opposing the measure. “I’m going to feel sick about this if that’s where we end up,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a recent radio interview.


Philip Johnston, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who opposes Question 2, said the struggles of urban families do weigh heavily on left-leaning voters in better-off communities.

“Many of us are well aware of the fact that in minority neighborhoods ... public schools are suffering very badly and parents see the charter schools as their only alternative,” he said. “But I think many of us also feel it’s a sad day when society isn’t willing to put more resources into making those neighborhood schools . . . as good as the ones I went to in an affluent suburb.”

Johnston said it may ultimately take court action to steer more funding into traditional public schools in Boston, Springfield, and other urban centers. But many Democrats, he suggested, believe improving those schools, rather than expanding a separate charter system for the few, is the best approach.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.