Proponents of education choice and local school control were handed a stunning defeat this election cycle, when voters in Massachusetts refused to ratify a proposal which would allow the state to open up to 12 new charter schools a year.
Although the bill had the support of a broad coalition of parents and community members, as well as Gov. Charlie Baker, voters rejected the proposal 62-38 percent. The results stunned charter school supporters.
“I would have a hard time finding any argument that charters came out ahead on this one,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a policy institute that supports charter schools. Petrilli described the bill as “a Hail Mary pass that shouldn’t have been made.”
Opponents of charter school expansion viewed the election results as saving local schools. With the support of teachers unions, they argued that opening more schools would drain district budgets.
During debates before the election, Boston city councilman Tito Jackson argued that more charter schools would particularly hurt minority students in the inner city, where academics already lagged suburbia.
“We need those resources to close that achievement gap,” he said.
It was an argument that appears to have resonated with voters. Although the ballot proposal had strong support this summer, by election day, public opinion had shifted.
The result comes as somewhat of a surprise. In Massachusetts, charter schools are a popular option with parents. In the 2014-2015 school year, around 37,000 students attended charter schools. Currently an estimated 34,000 children are on waiting lists, hoping to get into a charter school through an admissions lottery next year. Seventy-five of the state’s 82 existing charter schools had wait lists at the beginning of the year.
Massachusetts has two types of charter schools, Commonwealth Charters and Horace Mann Charters. Horace Mann schools must accept only students from within the same school district and must have its charter approved by the local school committee, and sometimes the local teachers’ union. Commonwealth charter schools need only to be approved by the state education board.
Currently, state law caps the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state, the percentage of district education spending that can go to charter schools, and the locations of the proposed charters. Each year, new schools are supposed to be opened in areas with with average or below average performance on statewide standardized tests. Some new charter schools will still be allowed to open next year, however, in districts where the enrollment cap has been met, no new schools can be added.
The rejected ballot proposal would have allowed charter schools to grow at a faster rate.
In light of voters’ rejection of the planned expansion, the state legislature seems hesitant to return to the issue. A spokesman for the House Speaker expressed it simply, “the voters have spoken.”
Still, education reformers have not yet given up hope.
“This is not going to stop charter school expansion,” said Marty Walz, chairwoman of the advisory council of Democrats for Education Reform, in the Boston Globe. “Voters simply rejected a specific question, which was a broad expansion of charter schools.”