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Did Massachusetts Just End the Country’s Charter School Debate?

On Election Day, voters said no to Question 2 and to charter schools.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

For months, Massachusetts voters have been slogging through one of the most tumultuous charter school debates the country has experienced in decades.

Supporters and opponents of Question 2, the ballot initiative that would up the cap on charter schools in the state, raised somewhere around $34 million, according to the Washington Post, with the Associated Press reporting more than $18 million spent on broadcast television advertisements alone. The charter school debate has become something of a proxy war for out-of-state interests, from teachers’ unions to Wall Street executives who manage teacher pensions. Days before the vote, Bernie Sanders, in some ways the avatar of the commonwealth’s unique liberalism, issued a jeremiad against the growth of charter schools in the state: “Wall Street must not be allowed to hijack public education in Massachusetts,” he said in a statement. “This is Wall Street’s attempt to line their own pockets while draining resources away from public education at the expense of low-income, special education students and English language learners.”

On Election Day, voters have said no to Question 2 and to charter schools, according to preliminary results. This should come as no surprise: A recent poll from Western New England University revealed 52 percent of likely and registered voters in opposition to Question 2 compared to 39 percent in support. But it’s not just about Massachusetts. “If the voters reject more urban charters here, then it’s not clear what more the charter movement can do to convince opponents and skeptics,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Parag Pathaktold the New York Times the Saturday before Election Day. And he’s not wrong: Despite cycle-specific worries over the influence of Wall Street “dark money,” Massachusetts’ status as a longtime petri dish for the ideological debate over charters means the vote will certainly have repercussions for education reform nationwide.

For decades, Massachusetts has been pondering the minutiae of school choice

The argument is relatively simple: Supporters of charter schools assert that a student’s freedom to choose raises the quality of education in both public and private schools through competition, while opponents see charter schools as a diversion of resources from the cash-strapped public school system (a bipartisan 2015 report found that state public schools are already underfunded by more than $1.1 billion).

Ever since the 1993 Education Reform Act, Beacon Hill has been funneling taxpayer dollars into charter schools — and leaving voters nationwide to debate the efficacy of their fundamental principles. Massachusetts currently hosts 81 publicly funded, privately managed charters educating more than 40,000 students (4.3 percent of the state’s public school enrollment) in 2015. Boston alone is home to 27 Commonwealth charters making up 14 percent of the city’s students, per Boston magazine, a stark contrast when you consider that half of Boston public school students aren’t economically well-off in the slightest. Still, it’s hard for many critics to deny these nascent institutions’ performance: A 2013 Stanford University study indicated that Massachusetts charter students scored higher on math and reading tests than their public school brethren, per Vice.

Of course, the Bay State isn’t the only incubator for charter schools. States like Colorado, Georgia, and Washington have considered similar ballot initiatives from school vouchers to tax credits for private enrollment since the 1993 ERA. But the Massachusetts rejection of Question 2 resonates a bit more this cycle primarily due to its contrast to California’s current set of ballot initiatives. California previously rejected charter school programs in both 1993 and 2000, and with relatively good reason: A series of investigative reports by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss revealed a charter schools sector rife with corruption and scandal, from maintaining enrollment policies that violate state and federal law (20 percent) to a “dismal record of academic achievement,” according to one report.

Which leads me to Proposition 51, a somewhat-overlooked ballot initiative that would allow the California’s government to issue $9 billion in bonds to build new K-12 and community college facilities and improve existing schools (including, yes, $500 million for charter schools). Despite California’s perpetual problems with its crippling debt, voters have a tendency to overwhelmingly approve school construction initiatives—about 80 percent of local measures with a 55 percent minimum support, according to the League of California Cities. Additionally, October polls showed 46 percent support for Proposition 51 compared to 41 percent against — not enough to ensure passage, but enough to give education advocates hope.

What does this have to do with Massachusetts? The union’s most liberal states reject charter schools to instead reinvest in public ones — taken together, it’s an affirmation of modern liberals’ commitment to public education over school choice. It’s likely that charter schools will find their way onto ballots in Massachusetts and California in coming years, but Election Day marks a resounding rebuke to the value proposition of school choice. Voters are “free to chose,” as the legendary Milton Friedman once put it — and they chose less choice.