Massachusetts schools are a primary battleground for charter schools expansion this election year. Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run institutions. A binding referendum on the November 2016 ballot would modify the state cap on charter schools, currently set at 120, allowing up to 12 new charter schools to open per year. This could be devastating for Massachusetts public schools.
A statewide coalition of community and student organizations and unions, Save Our Schools, which includes Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and hundreds of students and families have come together in the last few months to oppose the ballot initiative and to build statewide support for the improvement of public schools. Local school committees and city councils across the state have passed resolutions against the expansion of charters.
These stakeholders oppose the ballot initiative primarily because the expansion of charter schools would redirect millions of dollars per year away from public schools across the state. Charters are, at best, a shaky proposition. As Massachusetts state representative Paul Heroux has noted, the business-backed, pro-charter coalition of lobbyists has provided skewed data on the success of charter schools, relying heavily on parent satisfaction or student self-reports, which don’t provide comprehensive views of how a wide range of students are served — or under-served — across different kinds of charter schools; they also cherry-pick successful charter schools and ignore failing ones.
Lifting the cap on charter schools in the state is a reckless move that would endanger public schools across the state, forcing massive cuts in spending. A statewide commission recently found that Massachusetts public schools are already underfunded by one billion dollars. Even with the cap in place, it is projected that public schools in North Adams will lose $695,605 to charter schools in 2017. These numbers will increase exponentially if the cap is lifted. Lifting the cap on charter schools in the state would also open the door to further privatization of schools in Massachusetts. The neoliberalization and privatization of education across America has been destructive. Where education has been made for-profit, students, teachers, families and school staff, including custodians and administrators, suffer. People are underpaid. Classes are too large. The rise in high-stakes testing has crushed the radical imaginations of students and put families and teachers under enormous pressure. Testing companies reap enormous profits from the creation of tests, prep materials and grading systems.
Charter schools in Massachusetts also have a record of higher than average disciplinary measures, as the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice found in their 2016 report “Not Measuring Up: The State of School Discipline in Massachusetts.” A system of zero-tolerance policies and disciplinary actions, including arrests, disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities and poor students.
An important thing to understand about charters, too, is that they take funds away from public schools and make them a source of revenue for private investors in a number of different ways. Although most charters are non-profit, some are for-profit, and many charter school buildings are operated by private landlords. Landlords and real estate investors profit from taxes that are trans-ferred to the operation of charters.
An argument made by proponents of charter schools is that these schools have the freedom to be more innovative in their approach to education. I, too, hope for an educational system that gives students, families and teachers have opportunities to innovate and create educational models that best suit students’ needs. But we need to better fund public schools, not defund them for privatized alternatives.
Many members of coalitions against the lifting the cap are doing critical work to make the state’s public schools better — ending the school-to-prison pipeline; expanding arts and music programs, opportunities for hands-on and experiential learning and programs for students with disabilities and more. If you support this work, you also need to support keeping the cap on charter schools. Massachusetts’s schools must be well-funded and remain accountable to the public and to local communities.
Education in Massachusetts should be a public good, guaranteed to all, guided by public values and accountable to local communities. Lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts opens the door to increased privatization, creating educational institutions governed by the rules of the market, with little obligation to respond to the values or needs of the communities they are in. Stand with the students, teachers, staff, unions and other public school stakeholders and vote no on this ballot initiative. It is a critical move to protect and strengthen Massachusetts public schools.
Alexandra Griffin ’19 is from Queens, N.Y. She currently lives in Montreal.