The intensity of opposition to Charter schools, even public ones, is nothing short of amazing. Why, might one ask, is this so?
Republican Governors who face Democratic legislatures have a tough slog, but one path to political leverage is a referendum at the ballot box. Charlie Baker is using that route in November to override a Massachusetts House that is bought and paid for by teachers unions.
Last October the first-term Governor unveiled a bill to lift the state’s charter- school cap to allow 12 new or expanded charters a year. The bill was focused on districts with student performance in the bottom 25% of the state.
Massachusetts has a better education record than most states, thanks to relative affluence and higher testing standards. But there is a large unmet demand for charters in the state’s low-income districts that have rotten schools. The Bay State currently has a mere 78 charter schools with 40,000 or so students. Yet 32,000 more children are on charter waiting lists; 12,000 are in Boston, or 20% of the city’s public school enrollment.
Mr. Baker worked with reform Democrats in the legislature, and a bipartisan compromise emerged that tied the cap increase to some $1.4 billion in new spending for public schools. The state Senate passed the compromise in April, but House Democrats who bow to the Massachusetts Teachers Association refused even to take it up.
That’s when the Governor turned to the November ballot, and a May poll by the Suffolk University Political Research Center found that about 50% of likely state voters favor lifting the cap. But local and national unions are pouring money into the state to defeat it. The union strategy, as ever, is to win in a rout to discourage charter initiatives elsewhere.
They are also resorting to the usual deception. One canard is that charters siphon money from public schools, even though charters are public schools, albeit freed from union rules. Massachusetts is also the most generous of the few states that reimburse local school districts for students they lose to charters. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau reported this spring that Boston Public School spending has increased 23.4% over five years, even as enrollment has declined.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts charters are among the best in the nation. A Stanford University study last year found that Boston charter students progressed four times faster in reading and more than six times in math than students at traditional public schools. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study of Boston students last year showed charters better serve students with special needs, resulting in far greater test score gains.
Governor Baker’s campaign is right on the merits but it is also having the political benefit of forcing Democrats to live up to their rhetoric about income inequality. The charter-cap measure is exposing Democrats who pay lip service to economic opportunity but betray the poor whenever unions give them orders.
The referendum is also a test of upper-income white liberals in the Bay State who exercise their own school choice when they move to the suburbs or send their kids to private schools. We’ll find out in November how “progressive” Massachusetts really is.