Charter school question suffers defeat at polls
All but wealthiest Boston precincts reject measure
As Massachusetts Democrats gathered at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel to watch a nailbiter of a presidential race, staring anxiously at large monitors showing a growing lead for GOP candidate Donald Trump, that showdown took a backseat to what for Massachusetts was the most hotly-contested campaign.
Students, parent activists and teachers took the stage to celebrate the defeat of Ballot Question 2, which called for a lift to the statewide cap on charter school expansion — a victory that Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni said quashed efforts to privatize public education.
“We did it,” she said, speaking from the stage in the hotel’s function hall. “We beat back the privateers.”
Voters rejected the measure, which would have permitted 12 new charter schools a year in Massachusetts, 62 percent to 38 percent. That’s a turnaround from March of this year, when the “yes” vote polled at 57 percent and the “no” at 34 percent.
That split was reflected in the Boston, where voters rejected the ballot measure 62 percent to 38 percent. While Question 2 supporters cited polling showing strong support in black and Latino communities, the predominantly black and Latino voters in Roxbury’s Ward 12 rejected the measure 68 percent to 32 percent. The measure won in 14 majority white precincts in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill neighborhoods and lost in the city’s other 240 precincts.
Activists at the Fairmont Copley Plaza attributed the stunning reversal to their campaign’s ground game, which some estimated reached out to nearly 2 million voters in their homes.
Save Our Schools statewide field director Marisol Santiago said the campaign stuck with a strategy of direct voter contact.
“We knew we had to keep our campaign grassroots and go one-on-one with people to talk to them about how this ballot question would devastate our communities,” she said. “We were up against a great big machine. The only way to beat it was with people power.”
The Great Schools Massachusetts campaign, which raised $24.8 million for their campaign — most of it from out of state — seemed to rely more heavily on advertising and media outreach, although a spokeswoman told the Boston Globe the campaign had knocked on 150,000 doors in the Boston area.
The day before the election, as Save Our Schools volunteers and staff gathered at the Boston Branch of the NAACP, then dispersed throughout Boston neighborhoods to door knock, the pro-charter Great Schools Massachusetts held a pre-election rally on the basketball courts behind the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club.
There, Governor Charlie Baker, state Sen. Michael Rodriques of Fall River and state Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley were among those onstage before a battery of network news cameras.
“Tomorrow voters will decide whether they’re satisfied with our state’s public schools,” Peisch said. “I am not.”
While Great Schools Massachusetts used volunteers and paid campaigners to cover polling locations on Election Day, Save Our Schools appeared to overwhelm the pro-charter group with volunteers at the polls and robust get-out-the-vote activities.
Among the SOS volunteers were Boston high school students who pivoted from walkouts in protest of BPS budget cuts to fighting to defeat Question 2 this summer.
“If the cap were lifted, it would cause schools to close,” said South Boston High School junior Gabby Periera. “It would push the system over the edge.”
Pereira cited the $175 million charter school assessments taken from the Boston Public Schools budget. Because school districts are required to reimburse charters with the average, per-pupil cost of each student attending charter schools, many see charters as a drain on public schools’ funding.
On Election Day, Luis Navarro, a student at Boston Day and Evening Academy, went to work at the Holgate Apartments polling station on Elm Hill Avenue after class. There, he says, he found a receptive audience for his message on the need to support traditional public schools.
“There was a lot of positive energy,” he said. “A lot of people were supporting ‘no on 2,’” he said. “People said they understood our point.”
Navarro, who works with the Boston Youth Organizing project and began youth organizing while still in middle school, said his work on the ballot question is an extension of the student walkouts in protest of budget cuts.
“I’m a public school student,” he said. “I have a little sister who’s entering the system. I don’t want to leave the system the way it is. I believe it’s our duty as a youth organizer to improve the system.”
Run-up to the vote
As Election Day drew near, the SOS activists were bolstered by support from elected officials, including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano and Catherine Clark.
At a rally in Grove Hall last week, Clark, Walsh and city councilors Ayanna Pressley and Tito Jackson fired up a crowd of campaign volunteers.
Also last week, the Great Schools Massachusetts campaign stirred controversy with a flyer urging voters to “Join President Obama and support public charter schools.” While the White House issued a press statement noting that the president had not endorsed Ballot Question 2, that didn’t stop the campaign from sending out a second mailer and at least two text messages citing Obama’s support for charters.
Countering Great Schools Massachusetts, SOS spent $14 million, much of it from the American Federation of Teachers and the MTA. While that coalition spent far less on advertising, it did hire field directors and paid canvassers who worked alongside volunteers like the BPS school children to knock on doors and speak directly to voters.
In the end, MTA President Madeloni said, direct voter contact won.
“We beat their money with democracy,” she said to the crowd at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. “Two million doors. That’s what democracy looks like.”
Last week former state Rep. Marty Walz, who campaigned for Great Schools Massachusetts, suggested that if the ballot question failed, the group would push in the Legislature to lift the cap on charter schools in districts where the measure passed. But as the results rolled in, the measure won just 16 towns out of the state’s 350 cities and towns.
Under Massachusetts law, charter proponents are barred from bringing the same question before voters for another five years.
State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who opposed the measure, said legislators will likely sit down with both sides of the ballot fight to discuss how to move forward. Last night, she took an initial step in that direction, visiting the Great Schools Massachusetts campaign party at J.J. Foley’s in the South End.
“We all live in Massachusetts,” she said. “In the end, everyone is fighting for education. We have to come to the table and discuss how we move forward.”