What happens when charter schools begin to proliferate in traditional public school districts? In Massachusetts, where K-12 alternatives have had more than two decades to metastasize, it means millions less in annual funding for traditional institutions, and an all-out war in every budget season.
In the Commonwealth’s largest city and state capital, the impact of proposed cuts to Boston Public Schools for next year is already causing stress and anguish. Individual schools are bracing to lose beloved programs, as well as teachers and tutors, and, in some cases, resources for the most vulnerable special needs students. As charter allies boast about their high success rates and sophisticated, wired buildings, those stuck in the ailing BPS systems are in an uproar. And they’re pointing fingers at boosters of what they label corporate education reform.
With a binding statewide referendum set to appear on the ballot this November that would allow for more charter schools in Mass—state law currently caps the number at 120—the economic and philosophical spat between those who hold up charters as the answer and those pushing for increased funding across the board is escalating to unprecedented heights. On one side, as the Boston Globe reported in January, “a business-backed coalition is poised to spend up to $18 million and obliterate state campaign spending records in favor of expanded charter schools.” (Politico reported just this week that one group, Public Charter Schools for MA, “has reserved $6.5 million in advertising for the seven weeks before election day” to air advertisements “produced by DC-based SRCP Media, the same firm behind the infamous ‘Swift Boat Veterans For Truth’ campaign against John Kerry in 2004.”)
On the other side, groups of students and parents are organizing in large numbers, while teachers unions, well-funded in their own rights, are bracing for the largest threat to their power and prolonged existence in history.
Students, in particular, have shown an unwillingness to sit silently while this not-so-slow drain of resources impacts their schools. Late in May, and for the second time since March, hundreds of BPS students walked out of their classes and onto the steps of City Hall to protest the proposed cuts. In advance of this second wave of student protests (in March more than 1,000 students walked out), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh used the daily newspapers to blast teachers unions, parents and other “adults” for instigating the action. In response, the grownups, in concert with BPS students, hammered the mayor in their own comments to press and on social media. It was precisely the type of antagonistic exchange that has become characteristic of the current debate over education—and charter school funding in particular—in the state of Massachusetts.
On the same day in May that students were raising their voices outside City Hall, the scene inside the municipal building was noticeably more subdued. That’s where a hearing was taking place over an education budget, which was approved by city councilors last week, that was expected to (and does) cut millions of dollars in school funding district-wide.
With more than 50 students and some scattered union and parent supporters sitting together in one section of a nearly full City Council Chamber, BPS administrators who helped write the budget explained their “strategic plan” for the “shifting of resources,” and delivered a presentation packed with pedagogical buzz phrases like “the health and wellness of all children” and “multi-tier support systems.”
The councilors were cordial in their queries for the administrators, if in certain cases perturbed. At-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley, a noted advocate for young women and at-risk youth, questioned the prudence of cutting funding to trauma programs and student health allocations. “We should be investing and not divesting,” added District Councilor Tito Jackson, a leading opponent of Mayor Walsh on education issues of late. As he spoke, students found their way inside the building and began chanting—“BPS! BPS!”—loudly enough to penetrate the Council chamber.
Jackson continued: “I am very disturbed and troubled that we are in a budget cycle where $115 million in new revenue has come into this city and the place where we’re finding to cut is from schools and those who need it the most.”
In the face of such challenges, Mayor Walsh, who inherited a system wracked with failing infrastructure and historically ineffable fiscal management practices, has indeed offered some concessions. After the March walkout, the mayor diverted $6 million away from larger institutional investments to cushion the blow felt by individual schools. Still, in public and in interviews, the mayor has been reluctant to acknowledge the massive impact of the charter few on the traditional many.
“I’m not going to be part of the conversation around charter schools versus public schools versus Catholic school,” Walsh told questioning BPS parents at a town hall meeting in early May. “I’m unique—I went to kindergarten at a public school, I got educated at St. Margaret’s grammar school in Dorchester, which is a Catholic school, and I went to Newman Prep in Back Bay, which is a private school. And I’m a founding board member of a charter school, so I know how all educations work.”
Like everything related to school systems in Mass, the entire story is a bit more complicated than the mayor lets on.
A 25-Year Pro-Charter History
Education reform is bloodsport in Massachusetts, where public education was birthed and bred by Horace Mann, among others, in the first half of the 19th century, and then born again with the passage of the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993. That still-controversial legislation, which introduced testing standards that are still used in Massachusetts today and opened up funding for experimental charter schools, passed under Republican Governor (and current Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee) Bill Weld—for whom the Bay State’s current GOP governor, Charlie Baker, served as secretary of administration and finance.
Since those floodgates opened to build charter schools, of which there are currently 81 statewide, districts from Springfield to Cape Cod have become testing grounds for innumerable pedagogical approaches—some statistically hopeful, others far less effective. All these years later, one major point of contention is the money that charter schools drain from the overall system. In Massachusetts, as elsewhere, education funding follows the child; when a student leaves a local public school and enrolls in a charter, the local school traditionally loses the money allocated to educating that student. Since it’s difficult for schools to cut programs proportionally, administrators are often forced to end services entirely when this happens—cutting everything from language and civics classes to music and arts instruction.
To lighten the logistical and economic strains that come with students transferring to charters, Massachusetts is among several states that reimburses districts for the loss of part of that funding. But that shock absorber has been unpredictable at best, and it has led to further disagreement with charter supporters, many of whom believe such compensation should be cut entirely. As Mayor Walsh himself conceded in a testimony to the state legislature’s education committee last October:
In Boston, our total education costs this year, combining both Boston Public School and public charter spending, will grow by 5%, or more than $55 million. Yet our state aid for education, combining Chapter 70 and reimbursements, will increase by only 2%, or about $5 million. This is in part because the public charter tuition reimbursements required by law are being increasingly under-funded—this year by more than 50%.
As charters impact school budgets across the Commonwealth, those trying to stop the trend have little time for rest. Especially as their opponents, fueled by donations from the foundation arms of big companies including Walmart, launch an advertising blitz to sway the public. In the first week of May alone, some traditional school advocates from BPS who are aligned with the Citywide Parent Council showed up at one of the mayor’s public town hall events on Monday, organized at a neighborhood restaurant on Tuesday, supported a student demonstration on Wednesday, and testified before the City Council on Thursday. All between after-school pickups and helping with homework.
Among the nonstop headlines and op-eds touching all the various tangents of Boston’s current education debacle, one recurring theme is a blurring of political lines; when it comes to the charter school debate, the only color that seems to matter is green. The Bay State’s revolving door of pols becoming well-paid charter figures is a slippery thoroughfare, from a former Boston city councilor and mayoral contender who now helps outside contractors take control of troubled schools, to the Republican governor appointing a venture capitalist with no education experience to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Central to all this is the near-unanimous love of charter schools among Bay State politicians. Former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick—now an employee of Bain Capital, which owns the early childhood center giant Bright Horizons—signed a controversial compromise with the aggressive reform group Stand For Children in 2012, and routinely called for lifting the cap on charters. Though the American Federation of Teachers went so far as to funnel nearly half-a-million dollars to current mayor Walsh through a clandestine PAC in the 2013 race that put him in power, its gamble on the lesser of two pro-charter horses was for naught. In selecting his superintendent from four finalists last year, Walsh, a founding board member of the Neighborhood House Public Charter School in Dorchester, hired the most devout charter apostle among them, Tommy Chang, who hails from LAUSD. In his turn, Chang appointed a consultant for the Walton Foundation-funded group Families for Excellent Schools (FES) to his 10-member leadership team, and then to serve as his chief of staff.
FES, it is worth noting, is now leading the fight to lift the cap on charters statewide.
Private Funders’ Influence on Public Education
Though it’s true that the origins of the pressure currently mounting in this state over the impending ballot initiative stretch all the way back to 1993, when charters first arrived, it is also true that this particular battle got especially heated in 2012 –– when, after decades of generally favorable treatment by the legislature, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was forced to scream “uncle” during backroom negotiations over an expansive and ambitious ed reform package.
The people standing on the other side of that debate, turning the screws, represented a group called Stand for Children (SFC), an Oregon-based education-reform nonprofit and political action committee with leaders who were vocal about breaking teachers unions. As I have reported in the past, that SFC effort was funded by the foundation arms connected to Bain Capital, among other corporations with potential profit-driven interests in schools. One of SFC’s chief supporters was the Walton Family Foundation, which contributed more than a million dollars to the operation in 2011 alone.
SFC pulled no punches in those 2012 negotiations. Since the nonprofit had enough signatures to potentially force even harsher measures through a threatened ballot initiative, teachers were left with few options and eventually conceded seniority rights in future hiring, making them more vulnerable to unfavorable transfers. The final bill also put in place stringent new teacher-evaluation standards, and was designed through a consensus process between labor and about 40 other stakeholders, including business leaders, experts from Harvard and MIT, and SFC.
Soon after agreeing to those reforms, however, SFC broke away from the pack, claiming that the measures agreed upon weren't bold enough. Specifically, they felt that principals, superintendents, and school boards should have more, if not all, power over teacher evaluations and firing. Their threats of a ballot initiative started back up again soon after, even as Massachusetts’ students routinely topped national math and science rankings.
Fast-forward to today, when the threats of forcing a ballot-initiative have become real. If the cap is lifted, Massachusetts’ educational landscape will open up for even more unfettered, nontransparent allocations of public monies to charter schools—a development pro-charter forces are eager to help usher into reality. Though some of the boldfaced names in headlines have changed (instead of Stand for Children, we now have FES at the reins), campaign finance and lobbying records reveal that the major behind-the-scenes players are tightly connected to many of the same foundations and forces that engineered concessions in 2012. And some, including Governor Baker himself, have direct ties to the original architects of privatization, Mass-style.
As the governor recently told journalists from across the country at the annual Education Writers of America conference, held in May at Boston University, “I was around when we created charter schools in Massachusetts, and the original intent was basically creating schools that could serve as laboratories for experimentation and opportunities to try different things.” He then followed up with a few cherrypicked, questionable stats to back his argument. “Most of [the charters] outperformed schools in their districts and in many cases outperformed all schools in the Commonwealth of Mass … Charter schools do a better job of meeting kids where they are, and in creating programming and structure that’s designed to lift [students] up.”
Baker’s vision for Massachusetts’ schools is one that aligns solidly with the private foundation funders and advocacy organizations whose anti-union, pro-charter influence is now exerting huge pressure across the state. “I don’t want to be the caboose on the back of somebody else’s train,” Baker noted at the EWA conference. “I want Massachusetts to do things that are most sensible for kids and families.” Which in this case seems to have a contemporaneous political meaning: more charters.
To conduct his education locomotive, Baker tapped James Peyser to serve as his superintendent of education. A charter school proponent, from 1993 to 2001 Peyser served as executive director of the Pioneer Institute, where, according to his bio, he helped to launch the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center. Peyser was also previously a managing partner at the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit pro-charter grant-making firm that invests in turnaround schools. (Families for Excellent Schools is an investment property of NewSchools; both are supported by the Walton Family Foundation, which in 2012 contributed $1,386,615 to NewSchools.)
With so many deep ties to the privatization movement, Baker and his team have no intention of losing the fight to expand charters in the state, and to continue sapping resources from traditional schools. In the governor’s mind, it’s what the people want: “As we sit here today, we have about 40,000 kids attending charter schools, and we have about 34,000 kids on waiting lists,” Baker told reporters at EWA. “There’s going to be a question on the ballot this fall. I expect it will be a very engaging conversation. But for me this isn’t very complicated in Massachusetts, a state that prides itself on being a great education state, and a state that believes in progressive policies and opportunity for everyone. That’s why I’m going to work hard with others to get that cap question passed in the fall.”
But there are plenty of people who feel differently. And they refuse to allow the governor to steamroll them into submission.
Parent Activists Push Back
On a Tuesday night in May, a group of nine BPS parents and three students hugged conjoined tables at the legendary Irish political haunt Doyle’s in the gentrified post-hipster enclave of Jamaica Plain. Under images of local lawmaker icons like the Kennedys and Mayor James Michael Curley, these members of the grassroots Citywide Parent Council discussed recent fumbles by the Walsh administration, and brainstormed ways to shine a light on the charter school debate. Unlike the successful movement to stop plans for a Boston 2024 Olympics, which effectively pegged the city’s elite as unscrupulous selfish pigs, charter school opponents in Massachusetts have not yet been able to tie that same popular narrative to their issue—even though the same characters, particularly from politically wired businesses like Bank of America and Bain Capital, are fueling pro-charter forces from their board perches on nonprofits like NewSchools Venture Fund.
As the conversation turned to upcoming actions, including the aforementioned student walkout, the parents group doubled in size. Karen Kast, a 24-year BPS parent and CPC organizer who is known as one of the louder anti-charter voices, prodded her allies for ideas to increase interest in their cause. “We’re a quarter of the way through this fight,” Kast said. “Once we get through the budget, which is sucking the life out of everybody, our next big battle is the ballot initiative. This feeds into that.”
Anthony Englert, a student at Boston Latin Academy from nearby Roslindale, said his peers are eager to speak out about cuts and deficits affecting everything from books and other basics to electives. Things that may not seem important on the macro level, said Englert, can be path-altering for young people. “The students are concerned about getting our budgets cut,” he said. “For example, our Arabic program was almost cut. If that was cut, several students would have to start re-taking a language, and we’d be losing two teachers. And beyond departments being cut, there are things like supplies. My school runs out of materials in the first few months of the year.”
On top of such baseline hardships, teachers and concerned BPS families will face their most formidable opponent yet in fighting Families for Excellent Schools over the charter cap. FES proved it could do damage in its brutal and impactful campaign against New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio over the expansion of charter schools in his state, and the group plans to deploy millions in the Bay State this time around. In fact, they’ve already begun: in 2015, FES spent more than $500,000 in the Commonwealth, lobbying and marketing through email, paid advocates, and public relations consultants.
Off to the side at Doyle’s, John Lerner, whose daughter is a BPS student, fiddles with his cell phone. The night before, Mayor Walsh cut him off at a town hall event in West Roxbury after he asked about getting more state funds for BPS. “I’ll go back to it again saying that I inherited a district that needed some major changes,” Walsh had said abruptly, “and if we don’t make these major changes we will bankrupt this system and kids won’t get the education they deserve. I’m going to keep saying that until I get my message across.”
Lerner says he only became an education activist in the last couple of years “because of the budget at my daughter’s school.” But these days his frustrations mount more quickly. It’s a feeling of powerlessness that is likely familiar to any parent, activist or otherwise in Boston or anyplace else, who is concerned about the movement of public schools away from public accountability and toward privatization.
“The mayor has his talking points and he sticks to them,” Lerner says. “If he wants to make adjustments, then make adjustments, but don’t do it on the back of the students. The students and the teachers didn’t create this mess, and they shouldn’t pay the price for it.”
Lerner continues, “I think, after the last two budget seasons, the mayor will not budge. No matter what. I don’t know if it’s Families for Excellent Schools, if he’s in cahoots with them, or what. But there’s a tremendous amount of dark money out there.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.