Supporters and opponents of a tightly contested ballot question that would expand charter schools in Massachusetts took to the streets Saturday in a last-minute effort to reach undecided voters.
Across Greater Boston, volunteers knocked on doors, handed out leaflets, and spoke to neighbors about the measure, which would allow for up to a dozen new or expanded charter schools each year.
Opponents canvassing near Brookline Village offered to discuss the referendum with Carlo Ciatto, 55, but he said he already agreed with them.
“I think I’m going to vote no,” he said. “I read about it. ... I support public schools.”
In East Boston, canvassers advocating for the measure spoke to a man who said he was not registered to vote but that his mother had cast her ballot in its support.
Charter schools are publicly funded, using money drawn from state allocations for local districts, and are overseen by state officials but often operate independently of local districts.
That independence, advocates say, gives the schools more latitude to experiment and find teaching models that work. But critics say charter schools underserve populations with special needs and unfairly strain school districts’ budgets by drawing away money.
Supporters of expansion include Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican and longtime charter school propoponent, while opponents include Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, a Democrat.
Those speaking against the proposal Saturday included Democratic former governor Michael Dukakis, who said great schools are driven by strong principals, dedicated teachers, and supportive communities.
“It’s all part of a kind of movement to break up, to privatize, to essentially, I think, badly harm what is a very important relationship between people and their schools,” said Dukakis, 83, as he rallied about three dozen opponents of the measure at the Brookline home of Democratic state Representative Frank Smizik.
Dukakis said schools can implement proven improvements, such as longer days of study, without establishing a new system alongside existing districts.
“I just do not understand the theory behind creating a whole new set of schools which are unconnected, in most cases, to their communities,” he said.
A Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll conducted in late October showed that 45.4 percent of voters supported charter school expansion and 45.4 percent opposed it. A more recent poll from Western New England University gave opponents a lead of 13 percentage points.
On Saturday, pro-expansion canvassers in East Boston said they had seen the benefits of charter schools in their children’s lives.
Susana Carella, 42, of Chelsea, said her daughter was a successful student in a district elementary school in that city but that she found a marked difference between the city’s middle schools, where she saw teachers struggle to keep students focused, and Edward Brooke Charter School, which her daughter now attends.
“I see a highly structured and positive environment,” she said of the Brooke, “so one that fosters student engagement, interaction, parental involvement, and learning. And it particularly fosters a love of learning.”
Roslindale resident Sheyla Negron, 35, said she sent her three children to charter schools because she felt shortchanged by her own education in Boston’s district schools.
“I felt like I was lacking in preparation when I went to college ... compared to my peers that were coming from the suburbs,” Negron said. “I thought that was unfair.”
The difference between district and charter schools was clear when her eldest daughter began kindergarten, she said, in a classroom where a poster proclaimed the year she would graduate college.
“As a Latina, it was really important to me that they were talking to my children about attending college and the possibility that that will be available to them if they work hard, if they study, and if they have the right preparation,” she said.
Canvassers struggled Saturday to reach residents at home on the crisp afternoon and found many who said they had already voted.
Anti-expansion volunteer Suzanne Federspiel, 67, who retired as principal of Dorchester’s Thomas J. Kenny Elementary School last year, said minor setbacks didn’t bother her.
“Part of it’s just handing them the literature and reminding them to vote,” Federspiel said, “and I’m thrilled that so many of them voted early.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.