Massachusetts voters had their say Tuesday on adding more charter schools, and their message couldn’t have been more emphatic.
“Enough,” they said.
The defeat of Question 2 wasn’t a surprise, but the margin was resounding. After the most expensive referendum campaign in state history, 62.1 percent of the voters rejected the plan to add 12 new charter schools a year, with just 37.9 percent in support.
Politically, the vote was immediately spun as a huge defeat for Governor Charlie Baker, who had invested substantial political capital in raising the cap and whose political team ran the campaign. Ultimately, Baker’s personal popularity wasn’t enough to ease the qualms of voters who believe that charters add to the burden of traditional public schools, while helping only a sliver of families.
The vote to keep the status quo intact was a huge win for the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the politicians who rallied to maintain the cap. But it also drove a stake into an education reform effort that has benefited the many low-income and minority students in the state who attend charter schools.
So what now?
“I think one of the things all of us have to do is establish the expectation that district schools will reach the level of charter school achievement,” Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan said. “We can’t abandon that ambition.”
Unfortunately, the debate over Question 2 became a sometimes tedious fight over education funding. Both sides engaged in plenty of hyperbole and distortion, and the chance to talk about how to make schools work for those they are failing got short shrift.
On the other hand, a passionate debate over education policy — even a brief one — came as a welcome surprise to many. If nothing else, the Question 2 debate proved that voters care far more about public schools that most people realized.
“One of the things I really came to appreciate in this campaign is that people really value public schools,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “Even when they struggle sometimes, and even when they don’t see them as perfect. We need to access that hope that people have for the public schools.”
For now, lifting the cap on charters is pretty much off the table. The legislature is historically loath to disregard the will of voters once they’ve spoken, and rightly so. But that doesn’t render the pro-charter campaign helpless; there remains an opportunity to address some of the criticism heard in the debate.
Besides funding, voters clearly have concerns about the way charters operate. The criticisms that they don’t do enough for children with special needs, or non-native speakers, resonated. They are public schools, and the state has plenty of leverage to curb their excesses and make them more inclusive.
At the same time, traditional schools need more money. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg noted Thursday that the Legislature made a firm commitment to higher school funding in the early years of education reform in the 1990s — and held firm even when finding the money was a challenge. He thinks that it’s time to return to that kind of resolve.
A question headed to the ballot in 2018 — the so-called “Millionaire’s Tax” — could raise as much as $2.2 billion a year, earmarked for education and transportation. That funding would help mightily in closing the gap between high-performing schools and those that continually struggle.
Opponents of the ballot question argued the better option was to invest in improving all public schools. Now that they’ve won, there is no time to waste in pursuing that goal.
That isn’t lost on the MTA’s Madeloni. “We have to begin to have community conversations about what we want from our public schools — what we want them to look like and what we want from them,” she said. “We need to put the charter school thing aside and keep that conversation going.’’