In Boston, charter vote reflected racial divide
The organizers of a ballot campaign to expand charter schools who spoke passionately about the need to provide better educational options for students of color failed to deliver victories in minority precincts throughout Boston, according to a Globe analysis of election results.
Even in neighborhoods that have among the lowest-achieving schools in the state, opposition to Question 2 ran deep.
In Mattapan, for instance, more than 1,000 voters poured into the Mattahunt Elementary School, which is teetering on the brink of state receivership, and overwhelmingly rejected the measure, 64 percent to 36 percent.
Of the city’s 255 precincts, the ballot question passed in only 14 — mostly located in a largely white swath of the city that extends from the West End through Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. The more diverse precincts to pass it were in the South End.
The outcome raises questions about demand in communities of color for more charter schools, potentially undermining a key argument of charter school advocates that thousands of families want out of the Boston school system.
The uncertainty is emerging after charter schools spent the past two decades opening about two dozen campuses in disadvantaged neighborhoods from East Boston to Roxbury to Mattapan.
Several researchers have found those charter schools to be among the highest performing in the nation, typically besting district schools on state standardized tests.
But civil rights advocates say families of color yearn for something deeper: A robust commitment and plan to improve the quality of education in the city’s school system so they don’t need alternatives.
And they want to work in partnership with policymakers rather than having outsiders coming in and proposing a solution.
“Ultimately, communities of color spoke loudly about our needs to protect public school funding while also expressing an urgency to deliver a quality education for all our students,” said Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.
Not everyone shares that view, though. Aisha Porcher, whose daughter was admitted to a charter school this year and whose son graduated from one, said she was stunned that the ballot question didn’t pass in any of the minority precincts. “These are the neighborhoods that need it the most and where children are lagging behind academically,” said Porcher, of Dorchester. “It’s very disheartening.”
Yet Porcher said she initially struggled whether to support the ballot question because of advertisements that accused charter schools of draining money from district schools — the thrust of the no campaign. After doing some research, she ended up supporting the measure.
Across Boston, voters rejected the ballot question 62 percent to 38 percent, the same margin as the state.
Charter school advocates cautioned against reading too much into the election results as an indicator about families’ demand for their schools.
“The vote is overwhelmingly made up people who are not involved in the public schools,” said Bill Walczak, cofounder of Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester.
The true gauge, they said, is the thousands of students on waiting lists for charter schools. But opponents question how many of those students still want a seat.
The landscape for a no vote was more favorable from the start in spite of some early polls that suggested strong support for charter schools among black and Latino families.
School district parents, students, teachers, and civil rights leaders had already mobilized during the winter to fight school budget cuts and were able to switch their attention to the charter school question.
And with 56,000 students in the city school system, the numbers of parents and teachers whom opponents could tap greatly exceeded those from charter schools, which enroll about 10,000 city students.
Opponents’ efforts were bolstered by some powerful allies, such as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, City Councilor Tito Jackson, civil rights groups, and teacher unions.
Working with the No on 2 Campaign, families, teachers, and others began going door to door in July, hitting every neighborhood across the city.
Some volunteers turned their homes into make-shift call centers to lobby against the ballot measure. In East Boston, a group of grandmothers cooked dinner every Wednesday night for parent volunteers who worked a phone bank at the home of Kelly Gil Franco, a Boston teacher whose son attends a district elementary school.
During two-hour sessions, they made calls in both English and Spanish. They also had one parent who spoke Arabic. “I was lucky to see how supportive the community was,” said Gil Franco. “We were encouraging people to study multiple perspectives, conduct their own research, and visit their public schools.”
In all, the no campaign knocked on the doors of or phoned over 378,000 Boston households, according to the No on 2 Campaign.
By contrast, the yes campaign knocked on more than 150,000 doors in the Boston area, including Lynn, said Eileen O’Connor, spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, the organization behind the ballot question. “The opposition’s success at falsely blaming charters for funding and performance challenges in Boston’s districts schools was very effective,” she said.
Opponents also accused charter advocates of resorting to questionable tactics, particularly circulating campaign literature in black communities suggesting that President Obama had endorsed the ballot question when he had taken no position.
Jackson said Tuesday’s results was about “neighborhoods owning the future’’ of their schools. “I believe the electorate showed in the communities of color that it’s in our character to uplift and focus on the education of all students, not just some,” he said.