On Wednesday, against what once seemed like big odds, the Massachusetts Senate defeated two bills that would have lifted the cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close. The Senate Bill crafted by Boston’s own Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz went down by a vote of 26-13, while the even worse House version of Wellesley’s Rep. Alice Peisch took and even harder fall by a 30-9 tally. If I could bring myself to drink at 6:57 AM, I’d offer a toast right here.
The day before the vote, I was not optimistic. It seemed that about a fourth of the chamber was solidly against charter expansion and a more or less equal number were clear that removing the cap on charter expansion was the way to go. The big group in the middle were from places in the state that wouldn’t really be affected that much by charters, but they seemed to be leaning toward supporting Chang-Díaz in her effort to craft a bill that would pay Paul without really robbing Peter (fund charters without damaging the public schools).
But a funny (and fortunate) thing happened on the way to the roll call. Nearly all of that middle group of people–apparently without strong convictions on the issue–came to the conclusion that it was not time to add more charters in the Commonwealth’s “low-performing” districts. A few of those Senators spoke eloquently against the bill in the debate, and almost all of them voted against it when the time came. So…what happened?
How was it that a spirited, if low budget, effort by public education advocates–many of them BPS parents, teachers and students–overcame a slick pro-charter campaign, complete with lobbyists, paid polls and sophisticated public relations? The pro-charter juggernaut supported by the Boston Foundation, the Boston Globe, many downtown corporate interests and (we all must recognize) many parents fed up with the BPS had moved the legislation past several apparent box canyons and had easily carried the day at the House vote in May.
Charter booster, Scot Lehigh, published his pre-mortem explanation in the Globe the day before. For him, the bill was in danger because of the machinations of Sen. Chang-Díaz, who had re-inserted several poison pills that had been left out of the House bill. Most notably, in pursuit of a “third way,” the Boston Senator had the audacity to link charter expansion to the Legislature’s fulfillment of its legal mandate to reimburse school districts for a fraction of what they lose each year in tuition payments to charters. No reimbursement, no charter expansion…simple as that.
In truth, those reimbursements don’t repair the financial damage done by the diversion of state education funds to charter schools, but (sorry Scot) this and other Chang-Díaz ideas were not the reason the bill fell. If that was the case, then the Senate could have rejected the Chang-Díaz bill and then passed the House bill without Sonia’s troubling provisions. But Alice Peisch’s gift to the charter lobby–the House bill–got even less support than the Chang-Díaz “compromise.”
Marc Kenan, of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association, didn’t go there in his prickly statement, released right after the vote (at least it was a real post-mortem). …But, misinformation about charters is driving policy at the State House. Opponents play fast-and-loose with the facts about charter enrollment, attrition, and financial impact on districts. And they seem to have a receptive audience in the state Senate. Marc is closer to the truth than the Globe columnist.
The movement to oppose this bill did use data to present a coherent argument that charter expansion would continue to hurt the finances of public school districts. Given the financial crunch faced by urban districts and the increasing amount of state aid already going to charters, this was not a hard argument to make. We also used data gathered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the charters, themselves, to argue that charters are not enrolling either English Language Learners or Students with Special Needs at acceptable rates, given the presence of these students in traditional schools. Finally, we argued that a disturbingly high percentage of the students that charters do enroll leave those schools before graduation. The charters’ own data shows that their attrition rates are higher than the public districts from which they are drawing their students. If relying on publicly-available data to make an argument about the impact of charter expansion is being “fast and loose,” then I plead guilty as charged, and many of the parents, students, teachers and community members who joined me–and did the real work–in making this case probably are guilty, too (though they can plead for themselves).
I prefer to think that we made a consistent, coherent and persuasive argument. Some eloquent members of the State Senate looked at the data we presented and that presented by our much better-funded opponents in the pro-charter camp, and decided that we were correct. Their arguments against charter expansion were able to knock the colleagues off the fence, but in the right direction.
I was working when the final debate happened in the Senate, but, thankfully, many of the people who had been making the argument supporting quality education for ALL students were in the gallery. They heard some passionate speeches in favor of charter expansion, but, thankfully, they heard more from Senators who had come to question the wisdom of this bill. Among those speakers was Senator Pat Jehlen, who represents Cambridge, Medford, Somerville and Winchester, a district that is home to several charter schools. After summarizing some of the things that concerned her about charter schools, Jehlen said:
There are ways of reducing the achievement gap that have been proven, e.g. early childhood education. We should really spending our money on methods that are proven.
Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton echoed Jehlen’s sentiments by suggesting that:
We’ve essentially created a two-tiered public education system. Shouldn’t we make some investments that will go to all students in the Commonwealth.
It’s always tempting to suggest that people who don’t agree with one’s opinion have been the victims of manipulation and misinformation. I hesitate to hurl the first stone on that one. That said, I think that, despite the efforts of a prosperous pro-charter lobby, at least some policy makers in Massachusetts have decided that we need to take a closer look at how charters are affecting our entire education system before we buy into more of them.
Anyone who thinks that one vote in the Senate is going to turn around the charter juggernaut hasn’t been paying attention. The Globe will keep editorializing in support of charters, Paul Grogan will sign more checks and the MPCSA will continue to mobilize well-meaning people who don’t see a place for their children in traditional public schools. In the long run, the way to stop the charter train will be to ensure that public school districts provide Quality Education for Every Student.