Charter advocates seek alliance with former adversaries
This year’s sleepy municipal election season is a far cry from the raging ballot question battles of 2016, when a measure on charter school expansion galvanized local voters and attracted millions of out-of-state dollars in campaign contributions. For many, the bitterly-fought dispute over charter expansion was not just a matter of whether charter schools are effective, but whether the state could afford the cost without starving district schools. That ballot question focused attention on the manner in which the state funds schools, which causes charters to compete with district schools for the same limited pool of education dollars. At that time, many charter advocates argued against the idea of increasing the pool of state education funding through a tax increase.
“We’ve been throwing billions of dollars at public education for decades and not getting results,” pro-charter Great School Massachusetts Coalition director Shane Dunn said in a public forum.
Now, with a ballot initiative that would generate public education funding directed both to charter and district schools likely to appear on the 2018 ballot, leaders of organizations funded by charter school advocates are sounding a different tune. Three corporate-funded education reform groups — Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts, Massachusetts Parents United and Stand For Children — are seeking to join the union-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition that is behind the Fair Share amendment.
The Fair Share Amendment, better known as the “millionaires’ tax,” proposes to raise a projected $2 billion for public education and transportation by levying a special tax on all income over $1 million.
The potential entry of these groups into the fray has caused some controversy within the coalition, which includes the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union and an alliance of community-based organizations that worked against Question 2 last year.
“A lot of resources that could have gone into the Fair Share Amendment went into fighting Question 2,” said an activist who works on the millionaires’ tax initiative.
Lewis Finfer, an organizer with the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition, said the coalition has not finished discussing the groups’ interest in the Fair Share Amendment.
“We’re trying to figure out how to respond as a coalition,” he said.
Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts Director Liam Kerr points out that his organization has consistently supported increased funding for education. “We want more money for schools,” says Democrats for Education Reform State Director Liam Kerr. “We just want it to be spent well.”
But the irony of groups like DFER, which funneled millions of dollars of funding from wealthy Wall Street investors in support of Question 2 last year, now supporting the Fair Share Amendment hasn’t escaped Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at UMass Boston.
“Millionaires in New York are paying groups to support a tax on millionaires in Massachusetts,” he said. “It doesn’t really add up.”
Unabated money flows
The dilemma facing the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition underscores the shifting dynamics affecting the state’s educational landscape. Question 2 supporters spent $19.5 million on the failed bid to expand charters with more than 80 percent coming from out-of-state contributors. Question 2 was rejected by 62 percent of voters.
But the resounding defeat of the ballot question has not completely stanched the funding from pro-charter corporate donors. In the wake of the 2016 defeat, two new organizations and one longstanding group recently have begun to rally parents and teachers, with some of the same actors:
• The newly-formed Massachusetts Parents United has an executive director, Keri Rodrigues, who served as statewide director of the Great Schools Massachusetts pro-Question 2 campaign. She also is on the advisory committee of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. Last year, DFER funneled thousands of dollars into the campaigns of pro-charter school candidates. MPU has received funding from the Walton Family Foundation and Longfield Foundation, both of which backed Question 2.
• Boston Education Action Network. The organization launched this year and is staffed by Teach for America’s initiative, Leadership for Education Equity. Some of its funding comes from Strategic Grant Partners, an organization that directed millions of dollars from out-of-state donors into Great Schools Massachusetts’ Question 2 campaign.
• Massachusetts Stand For Children. Although active for more than 10 years, the group lost many members and local affiliates when it pivoted from general education and took money from corporate contributors to advance a ballot measure that would have ended teacher tenure in Massachusetts.
With a January WBUR/MassINC poll showing public support for the Fair Share Amendment at 77 percent, the measure could be a win-win for charter supporters, expanding the education pie while at the same time potentially building the bases of education groups planning to work on it.
Big picture: Declining support for charters
In addition to Question 2’s decisive defeat last year, shifts in public opinion, in part fueled by national events, may be helping spur pro-charter groups to join forces with their one-time opponents.
Last week, a poll released by EducationNext — a journal co-sponsored by Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, and the Fordham Institute — revealed a drop in nationwide public support for school choice, a euphemism for charter schools. Its survey sample of more than 4,200 respondents showed that between 2016 and 2017, support among both Democrats and Republicans dropped steeply, from 51 percent to 39 percent, a 12-point reduction.
Indeed, the push to expand charters in Massachusetts, coupled with controversial charter expansions in cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago, have precipitated a backlash that last year saw the Movement for Black Lives and the NAACP call for a nationwide moratorium on charter expansion.
Adding fuel to the fire: The polarizing rhetoric of President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, his controversial education secretary, has charter proponents scrambling for cover.
“The rhetoric we hear from the Trump people, ‘Choice is good, and school districts are bad,’ sets us back a decade,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, told journalist Richard Whitmire, who blogs on The 74, a website funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and other corporate education reform funders.
The Massachusetts education groups’ activism, including the push to work on the millionaires’ tax, suggests that local corporate education reformers may be ready for a change in strategy, according to Jennifer Berkshire, education editor at Alternet and co-host of the education-focused podcast, “Have You Heard?”
“What you see in other parts of the country is a shift,” Berkshire said. “Corporate ed reformers understand they need buy-in from parents.”
Other agenda items?
The emergence of the new education organizations funded by charter school backers has some questioning whether the groups will work on a legislative push to expand charters. In the days following the November 2016 defeat of Question 2, former state Rep. Marty Walz, who supported the ballot measure, suggested that the legislature could pass a law to allow charters to expand in areas where the state deems district schools to be failing.
Democrats for Education Reform’s Liam Kerr said his organization has no specific legislation in mind for charter expansion.
“We’re not taking the lead on anything,” he said.
Kerr is supporting a push to increase the state’s foundation budget — which dictates the minimum funding level for Massachusetts schools and helps determine how much state aid districts receive. He served on an advisory council to the state’s Foundation Budget Review Commission, which issued its final report to the Legislature in October 2015.
“It’s a really interesting, complicated time for school reform,” he said. “Now we have a lot more in common with the people who were ‘no’ on 2.”