Educators and others rally to defeat Question 2

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W hen asked for her official position regarding the MA ballot initiative (known as “Question 2”) that would have allowed a dozen new charter schools to open in MA each year, AFT President Randi Weingarten replied, “taking resources away from public schools robs their students of opportunities to achieve their aspirations.”

Had Question 2 passed, these additional schools would have meant millions of more dollars of public education funding would have gone to support these new schools, potentially crippling many already overstretched public school districts.

Fortunately, 62 percent of MA voters voted “no.” In the process, they not only defeated this initiative, they also sent a message about how important American public education is in the place of its birth.

“Our broad coalition of stakeholders worked together seamlessly to protect and preserve the 96% of the children that attend our regular public schools,” observes AFT MA Political Organizer Brian Lapierre. “My hat goes off to the collective efforts of so many of our members, parents, students, community partners and organized labor that sent a resounding message on Nov. 8th that our school districts are not for sale.”

“By defeating Question 2,” observed AFT MA President Tom Gosnell, “MA voters have said that we support public education and students in the public schools.”

Another benefit, AFT MA Special Assistant to the President Ed Doherty suggested, was that the campaign helped the public learn about the issue and also learn who charter schools do and do not serve.

“The public began paying attention,” he said.

According to Gosnell, there were five main reasons why the opponents of charter expansion were victorious. First among these was the fact that our message that charter expansion would involve taking funds away from district schools and thus hurt education as a whole was “consistent, relevant, and credible.” Gosnell also noted how “everyone working in schools” (by which he meant not just AFT MA members or even just teachers, but administrators, parents, and students) “knew the message was true.”

“They became apostles…and advocates,” Gosnell observed.

Third was the fact that, over and above our members and affiliates, we had strong grassroots support from organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Citizens for Public Schools (CPS), and many parent and student groups.

Overall, volunteers for the No on Question 2 campaign were active in more than 300 cities and towns across the state.

 “We had over 3,000 members participate in our telephone town hall,” Gosnell said proudly.

“We knocked on about 20,000 doors and made twice as many phone calls,” observes Nick DiPardo, who had come from AFT National to support the efforts. He also notes that members of the BTU did their own canvassing and calling as well.

Looking to our professional support teams, Gosnell also credited our savvy advertising and public relations administrators who helped educate the public at large about the issue and our stance on it.

“They emphasized the message that district schools that educate 96 out of 100 students were being hurt,” Gosnell says.

The last reason was the money. Though our opponents spent a total of over $23 million, the fact that opponents of Question 2 were able to raise and make effective use of $15 million is, as Gosnell put it, “incredibly significant.”

As the margin of victory far exceeded what even the most optimistic “No on 2” supporters might have imagined, another possible result of this crushing defeat is that state legislators may not be as keen to revisit the charter school cap for the foreseeable future. Some public school supporters go so far as to suggest that it might help energize the debate about restructuring the school funding formula in MA so that the schools that exist can be more fully funded and more effective in engaging and educating all students, including the many students with language and learning challenges that often fail to thrive in charter schools.

“It does generate a conversation that needs to continue about education funding and what we want our schools to look like,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).

 Though charter proponents may claim that this is but one battle in a larger war and that the charter issue will return, MA legislators and movement leaders are not so sure.

“The public has spoken loud and clear on this one,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. “It will be very difficult for them to get any attention given how strong…the vote was.”

As MA is the birthplace of public education in America, some are even predicting that this vote will have repercussions across the country and may stall the pro-charter movement elsewhere as well. In an interview with the New York Times, MIT professor Parag Pathak claimed the decision “will send shock waves throughout the United States” and posited that, “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.”

No matter what the impact is elsewhere, the results in MA are firm and incontrovertible.

 “The people of MA have clearly and overwhelmingly rejected the expansion of a separate and unequal education system that would cause irrevocable damage to the public schools that educate all children,” echoed Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and chair of the Campaign to Save Our Public Schools (SOPS) which spearheaded the “no on 2” campaign. “Now we must move past this wasteful and divisive ballot question and work together on investing in our local district public schools and the future of all students across Massachusetts.”

Across the Commonwealth, Question 2 was set up to be a battle of many grassroots Davids against one well-funded Goliath. On the one hand were supporters, who used $20 million in untraceable “dark money” ($17 million of which came from out of state). Among the largest donors to the pro-charter side were New York-based organization Families for Excellent Schools and Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton. On the other hand, organizations including AFT MA, MTA and CPS, as well as individual teachers, parents, and other concerned individuals united under the SOPS banner to do phone banks and canvassing that reached hundreds of thousands of voters in more than 300 districts.

“Our opponents outspent us with a record breaking $23.1 million,” noted SOPS Field Director Marisol Santiago, “ but that didn’t stop our dedicated group of parents, educators, students, and community members in standing up and saying ‘No.’ “

“Grass-roots efforts by parents, educators, community groups and students succeeded in safeguarding the promise of public education as a public good, rejecting ideologues and others who sought to divert and drain resources from public education,” Weingarten maintained.

“This was a victory for public education, a vote to protect our public schools, and a testament to what can happen when we have millions of one-on-one conversations to educate people about the real consequences of charter expansion in MA,” observed Citizens Executive Director Lisa Guisbond.

More than 200 school committees also voted to oppose Question 2, joining 32 mayors, the Massachusetts PTA, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals’ Association, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Progressive Massachusetts, and the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts.

“Despite being outspent with millions of dollars,” Guisbond noted, “our thousands of volunteers in communities across the state won this election by having conversations with their neighbors, friends, and families. This campaign showed the true power of grassroots energy, and now it’s time to turn that energy toward improving all of our schools.”

By voting no, voters decided to use their tax dollars to support the district schools that exist rather than to create and fund new charter schools. As so many new and existing charter schools fail to deliver on their promises of better test scores and more comprehensive services for students (let alone teachers, none of whom need be certified and few of whom enjoy union protections), this was the wiser choice.

While charter school proponents often suggest that their schools are especially attractive in urban areas (where they allegedly represent a “choice” for students who may struggle in other settings), and note how many communities have not yet reached their state-imposed limits on charter expansion, even cities like Boston (which currently has permission to add only 250 more charter school seats for next fall) still soundly rejected the initiative. In fact, Question 2 was defeated in every region of the state, including cities such as Fall River, Holyoke, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Quincy, Worcester, and Boston, where it was defeated by more than 60 percent.

“The defeat of Question 2 is a victory for those of us who believe in equal and open access to all our public schools,” said Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman. “Our public schools perform well, and will continue to thrive and improve with the vote of confidence our citizens have given us.”

Many suburban and rural districts also voted against the initiative, despite the fact that charter supporters also suggest that new charters will have no effect on regions that already enjoy strong schools.

“Don’t use charters as a weapon against public schools,” advised Weingarten, “especially when Massachusetts public schools rank among the best in the nation.”

While the organizing may have been handled by the adults, many students made sure to make their voices heard even if they could not do so in the voting booth.

“As young people we aren’t able to vote in elections,” said Boston student Gabi Pereira. “This was especially hard this election when it’s our futures written on the ballot.”

As students are savvy enough to cut through the untruths and propaganda and realize when their schools were being threatened, they are among the most grateful for the result and for the hard work that was contributed by so many for this one cause.

 “Schools like mine across Massachusetts are losing too much to charter schools,” Pereira astutely observed. “So thank you all for hearing us for, supporting us and voting on behalf of us.”

Though future challenges are sure to arise, Guisbond suggested that we all take at least a moment to give thanks for and to celebrate our victory. “Our movement of urban, suburban and rural teachers, parents, students and others was a beautiful thing to behold and be a part of,” she says, noting that her organization plans to continue to “keep this movement together and build upon it to fight the inevitable battles ahead…[and] for equitable and adequate school funding and for less testing and more learning.”

Looking to the future, Gosnell was firm in setting the path for education in the Commonwealth.

“It’s time to end education policies that pit one group of families against another,” Gosnell suggested. “It’s time to ensure that all our district schools have the resources they need to educate all students. It’s time to end waiting lists for preschool and ensure that all students have access to the education and resources they need to thrive.”

“Every Bay State child should have the opportunity to get a high-quality public education,” Weingarten agreed, “so we look forward to working with the governor, teachers, parents and students to improve public schools through proven, evidence-based approaches: creating community schools, including restorative justice practices in curriculum, promoting career and technical education programs, and supporting—not demonizing—educators.”