Massachusetts Question 2 is the ballot issue that would lift that state’s cap on the authorization of new charter schools. The debate about Question 2 has attracted wide attention beyond Massachusetts this autumn because expanding charter schools in Massachusetts would create many of the same problems charter schools are posing in other states.
In a stunning commentary for the Boston Globe, education writer Jonathan Kozol, also a Massachusetts voter, seized next week’s vote on Question 2 as an opportunity to reflect on the public role of the state’s public schools: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy. What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters. It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.”
Kozol continues: “This commonwealth has been an exemplar of democratic public education ever since the incubation of the common school idea at the midpoint of the 19th century. For all its imperfections and constant need of diligent repair, it remains a vision worth preserving. The privatizing forces from outside of this state have wisely recognized the powerful symbolic victory they’d gain by turning Massachusetts against its own historic legacy.”
Who are these privatizing forces? Kozol points to the New York hedge fund billionaires who have invested in Families for Excellent Schools, a dark money organization that has underwritten the rapid expansion of charter schools in New York City, and that, as of last week, had spent $13.5 million to support Massachusetts Question 2. He also points to the Walton billionaires in Arkansas: “The Walmart heirs have every right to pour their money into causes they support. But voters also have the right to get some sense of what those causes are. The Waltons have for decades been standard-bearers in attempts to undermine support for public education—which they and their allies have derided as ‘the pubic school monopoly’….”
What does Kozol mean when he writes about the parents with the greatest social capital? These are the “parents who, no matter what their economic status, are most likely to command the social skills involved in navigating application processes, learning about deadlines for a lottery, seeking interviews, and handling those interviews effectively. More importantly, they also tend to have the literacy skills and English language fluency to meet the terms of those demanding ‘contracts’ that most charter schools require in order to be sure that parents can provide a back-up education in their home.” Kozol warns about “draining-off parents who no longer have a stake in advocating for the schools from which they’ve chosen to depart… Who will stand up for the children at the schools they’ve left behind?”
Kozol shares a primary concern with Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh—that expansion of charters will, as it has most devastatingly in Chicago and Detroit, take urgently needed dollars from the public schools that continue to serve the students whose needs are greatest. Here is Mayor Walsh: “Question 2 does not just raise the cap. Over time, it would radically destabilize school governance in Massachusetts—not in any planned way, but by super-sizing an already broken funding system to a scale that would have a disastrous impact on students, their schools, and the cities and towns that fund them. This impact would hit Boston especially hard. Twenty-five percent of statewide charter school seats, and 36 percent of the seats added since 2011, are in Boston. Each year, the city sends charter schools a large and growing portion of state education aid to fund them. This funding system is unsustainable at current levels and would be catastrophic at the scale proposed by the ballot question… (O)ur charter school assessment is based on a raw per-student average that does not adequately account for differing student needs and the costs of meeting them. This system punishes Boston Public Schools for its commitments to inclusive classrooms and sheltered English immersion, as well as everything from vocational education to social and emotional learning. If those factors don’t tilt the playing field enough, there’s a kicker. Because our charter school assessment is based largely on the district’s spending, the more high needs students are concentrated in district schools—and the more we have to compensate for withheld reimbursements—the higher our charter payments grow. Currently, our charter school assessment is 5 percent of the city’s entire budget. Under the ballot proposal, it would grow to almost 20 percent in just over a decade. It’s not just unsustainable, it’s unconscionable.”
In a 2012 book about the growth of charter schools, New York education professors Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine summarize the concerns raised this month by both Boston’s mayor and Jonathan Kozol: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas… The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, p. 87)