Why Massachusetts Is Ground Zero in the Battle Over Charter Schools


Massachusetts is probably the most liberal state in the United States and by many measures its public school system is also the best in the nation. According to the 2016 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts report Massachusetts schools received an overall grade of B+, no state received an A, and the national grade was C. The report grades states and schools on the opportunities students have for success from birth to adulthood, K-12 achievement, and equitable school funding.

While students in the United States as a whole perform below expectations when measured against their peers in other countries, Massachusetts’ students do just fine. On the 2014 PISA tests for fifteen year olds, United States students ranked 31st out of 65 countries on math tests, 24th in science, and 21st in reading. But if Massachusetts was counted as a separate country, its fifteen year olds would rank 9th in the world in math, tied with Japan, and 4th in reading, tied with students from Hong Kong. On the TIMMS test for 8th graders, Massachusetts students ranked second in the world in science competency.

Despite this record of educational excellence, charter school advocates supported by major foundations and hedge fund investors have made Massachusetts ground zero in their battle to dismantle public education in the United States.” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni charges “They have targeted Massachusetts with the idea that if they can win here, it makes the road to privatization across the country easier.”

binding referendum on the November 2016 ballot would lift the state cap on charter schools, currently set at 120. The referendum is being pushed by a business-backed coalition that is spending tens of millions of dollars on the campaign. Much of the money comes from out-of-state groups, including the Walmart Foundation, about $700,000, and something called Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), whose Board of Directors has close ties to Wall Street financiers. According to filings with the state agency that monitors election spending, ERNA contributed over half a million dollars to Great Schools Massachusetts, the group pushing for passage of the charter referendum. Two other hedge-fund-connected organizations, Families for Excellent Schools and Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy kicked in more than $6 million in combined donations.

Charter advocates have powerful political backing from Massachusetts politicianson both sides of the political divide, some of whom are also employees of pro-charter companies. Former Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, a major advocate for lifting the charter cap, now works at Bain Capital, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pro-charter school campaign. Current Republican Governor Charlie Baker wants to lift the charter cap and allow twelve charter schools to open or expand enrollment each year. This plan was blocked by the state legislature in 2014, which is why charter advocates turned to a referendum where they figured their money could influence the result.

The main opposition to the charter referendum comes from the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. Both groups have the support of their national organizations. They do not want outside “dark money,” donations to charter school advocacy groups that mask who actually provides the funds, to determine education policy in Massachusetts. 

Charter opponents, including student groups, charge that an increase in the number of charter schools, especially in the Boston area, drains funding from the public schools. In March and May hundreds of Boston Public School students walked out of classes and marched on City Hall to protest against the proposed funding cuts. In Boston, total education costs for academic year 2016-2017 are scheduled to increase by 5% or $55 million. That includes spending on both public schools and “public” charters. But state aid will only increase by 2%, partly because reimbursements for money going to charter schools is under-funded by more than 50%.

Pro-charter groups filed a lawsuit in state courts challenging the constitutionality of the charter school cap. The case was thrown out by a judge who declared Massachusetts has the right to protect the financial well-being of its public schools. Associate Justice Heidi E. Brieger ruled, “the Legislature’s charter school cap reflects an effort to allocate education funding between and among all the Commonwealth’s students and therefore has a rational basis and cannot violate the equal protection clause.” According to Matt Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, “the court sends a clear message that taking money for charter schools will harm children in traditional school districts.”

Now pro-public school voters must mobilize to stop the charter expansion campaign funded by outside “dark money” that threatens the future of public education in Massachusetts.

When it comes to dealing with Wall Street financiers and hedge fund billionaires, the United States should learn from Uganda. In August, the Ugandan Minister of Education and Sports announced in parliament that the Government would close schools operated by Bridge International Academies (BIA), which runs 63 nursery and primary schools in Uganda. Ministry reports revealed that the schools violated national health and educational standards. Bridge is a for-profit chain of private schools with ties to Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Pearson Education, the World Bank, and the U.S. and British Governments. Click here for a full report on the campaign to shut down Bridge.

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