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Warren weighs in on charter schools

Senator Elizabeth Warren.Gary Cameron/REUTERS

Bad news for Governor Charlie Baker and his quest to expand charter schools via a ballot question: Senator Elizabeth Warren just came out swinging against Question 2, which, if passed, would allow up to 12 new charter schools in Massachusetts. For Baker and other Question 2 supporters, that’s like watching David Ortiz step into the batters box. Hurt usually follows.

The matter is now before voters because lawmakers couldn’t reach agreement regarding a plan to lift the charter school cap. To sway public opinion, both sides are spending millions. It’s a terrible way to make policy about public education, but this is where we are in Massachusetts.

Warren’s opposition to a local ballot question is less sexy than her high-amp tweets against Donald Trump or her dressing down of Wells Fargo CEO John G. Stumpf. But back at home, it’s a big deal — and Question 2 backers didn’t see it coming. Warren “won’t take a stand on any ballot questions,” predicted Marty Walz, a spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, at a recent meeting with the Globe editorial board.


Question 2 is opposed by all the state’s teachers unions, and Warren is obviously close to labor. Yet she initially sounded like she wanted to stay out of the fight. Although she expressed concern about the referendum, she previously declined to say how she would vote.

Perhaps she was honestly torn. As Michael Jonas pointed out in CommonWealth magazine, the Massachusetts senator is a longtime proponent of school choice. In her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap,” she endorsed a system of vouchers to support attendance at any public school.

But in a statement put out on Monday, Warren said that she will be voting no on Question 2. “Many charters schools are producing extraordinary results for our students and we should celebrate the hard work of those teachers and spread what’s working to other schools,’’ she said. But, after hearing from both sides, “I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”


Warren’s press office didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking further explanation about her decision. But the senator’s statement of opposition came a few days after Baker told
WGBH radio cohost Margery Eagan that if voters reject Question 2 he would abide by their decision. “If the people in Massachusetts vote against this, they’re making a statement about charter schools and about expansion, and that means we live with the status quo,” said the governor.

That sounds like surrender — all the more reason for Question 2 opponents to get Warren’s firepower behind them. Baker also speculated about what happens if the ballot question passes in “every urban community” but “fails in the suburbs,” adding, “I’m going to feel sick about this if that’s where we end up.”

When it comes to Question 2, you can put me down as “conflicted.” This campaign pits suburbs against urban communities and unions against business groups that despise organized labor. All supposedly in the name of “the children.”

I don’t like union resistance to needed reform. But I also dislike charter advocates’ portrayal of union-backed teachers as universally lazy and inept. Of course, parents naturally want the best education for their children and they should be able to choose what that means. But the creation of a two-tiered system betrays the very mission of public education.

Warren can play an important role in this debate. I only hope her decision really is about equal opportunity for all and not about caving in to union pressure.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.